Oct. 4, 2006 – Last week, a federal court overrode an attempt by industry groups to further ease regulations on industrial pollution of water.
The ruling upheld limits on nationwide pollution permits issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Unlike normal water-pollution permits for specific projects, nationwide permits grant blanket clearance across the country for pollution caused by certain types of industrial activities like mining and construction, which fall into a category known as "dredged or fill materials." The Corps can choose to fast track projects with a nationwide permit if it decides the proposed actions will overall cause "minimal" ecological damage.
Environmental groups decry such nationwide permits as a blank check for companies to pollute waterways while circumventing normal regulatory review.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the Corps of Engineers moved to tighten standards for nationwide permits. The new regulations included barring the exercise of nationwide permits in certain sensitive locations, requiring environmental mitigation measures, and limiting the size of the area that a project could impact.
The National Association of Home Builders and other development-industry groups sued the Corps of Engineers in 2000 to block the policy changes, accusing the agency of overstepping its regulatory authority. Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, intervened in the suit to oppose the industryâ€™s effort to loosen the regulations.
Last Friday, Judge Richard Leon of the US District Court in Washington, DC ruled against the industry groups and found that the Army Corps had acted within its mandate by restraining the nationwide-permit process.
While the ruling is a victory for environmentalists, they say that water bodies and wetlands are still threatened by broader assaults on Clean Water Act protections. For instance, in 2002, the Bush administration changed permitting rules under the Clean Water Act to allow increased dumping of mining and construction waste in waterways as "fill" material.
In a statement following the ruling, Sierra Club spokesperson Robin Mann said, "We still have a long way to go to halt the rubber-stamping of activities that destroy these resources."