EPA Rules for Streams and Wetlands Put on Hold by U.S. Court

  • Order is latest setback to Obama environmental initiatives
  • States challenge EPA expansion of U.S. clean water rules

A U.S. appeals court put on hold new federal rules that aim to protect streams and wetlands from pollution in the latest setback to President Barack Obama’s environmental agenda.

The three-judge panel in Cincinnati may eventually reject a challenge from 18 states to the expansion of the Clean Water Act to include dry creek beds, prairie wetlands and other areas. But its 2-1 decision to temporarily suspend those rules on Friday complicates Obama’s environmental agenda in its final 15 months.

The decision comes about six weeks after a North Dakota judge temporarily blocked the same Environmental Protection Agency regulations in 13 states. The administration has stumbled in other such cases. On Sept. 30, a federal judge in Wyoming temporarily blocked new federal fracking rules, saying the Interior Department didn’t have authority to implement them. The U.S. Supreme Court in June sided with states in a challenge to EPA mandates to reduce mercury and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants.

“A stay temporarily silences the whirlwind of confusion that springs from
uncertainty about the requirements of the new rule,” U.S. Circuit Judge David McKeague wrote in Friday’s opinion.

The EPA water regulations seek to “improve and simplify the process” for identifying waters that are protected by federal law, EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said. After publication in June, the rules were immediately denounced as overreaching by 31 states and business and trade groups.

Eighteen states sued in the case now in Cincinnati and 13 filed the North Dakota case. Some legal attacks against government rules are filed first in appeals courts.

Respect Decision

“The agencies respect the court’s decision to allow for more deliberate consideration of the issues,” Harrison said in a statement on behalf of the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, which was also sued.

In dissent, Judge Damon Keith said Friday’s ruling was premature because it’s still unclear whether the appeals court has authority over the dispute.  Keith was appointed to the bench by former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. The other judges were named by former President George W. Bush, a Republican.

Two Republican lawmakers from suing states, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, cheered the ruling. Chaffetz, who is vying to succeed outgoing U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, denounced what he said was the EPA’s attempt “to regulate puddles and ditches.”

The administration has prevailed in some environmental cases. A Washington-based appeals court last month rejected an effort by coal-producing states to delay the first deadlines for compliance with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which mandates cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. The court said the lawsuit was premature because the rules have yet to be formally published.

The latest case is In Re: Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defense Final Rule, 15-3799, 15-3822, 15-3853 and 15-3887, U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit (Cincinnati).

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