July 21, 2011

Supreme Court to Review Lawfulness of EPA Enforcement Orders

Posted on July 21, 2011 by Theodore Garrett

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of EPA compliance orders under the Clean Water Act. Sackett v. EPA, 2011 WL 675769 (No. 10-162, June 28, 2011). The petition for a writ of certiorari was granted to consider: “(1) whether petitioners may seek pre-enforcement judicial review of the order pursuant and (2) if not, does the unavailability of such review violate petitioners’ rights under the Due Process Clause?” Because of EPA’s broad authority to issue orders under the Clean Water Act and other statutes, the Sackett case will be of broad interest to environmental lawyers.

The facts are as follows. The Sacketts graded a lot in a residential subdivision in order to build a home. Thereafter, EPA issued an order to the Sacketts claiming that they violated the Clean Water Act by filling a wetland without a permit. The order directed the Sacketts to remove the fill, replace lost vegetation, and monitor the site for three years. The Sacketts did not agree that their property was a wetland and asked EPA for a hearing, which EPA allegedly ignored. The Sacketts then filed suit demanding an opportunity to contest the basis for the compliance order, which was dismissed by the district court. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal on appeal, holding that the Clean Water Act precludes review of pre-enforcement actions, such as compliance orders. The Ninth Circuit rejected the Sackett’s due process argument, noting that the Sacketts can raise their defenses if and when EPA seeks to enforce the compliance order in federal court.

The Sackett’s petition for certiorari argues that the Ninth Circuit’s decision leaves property owners like the Sacketts in an impossible situation: “either go through with the permit process that you believe is completely unnecessary and spend more money than your property is worth to “purchase” your chance at your day in court; or invite an enforcement action by EPA that may give you your day in court but only at the price of ruinous civil penalties and, depending on EPA’s ire, criminal sanctions for underlying violations of the CWA.”

The Sackett case raises significant issues applicable to the Clean Water Act that may have implications for other environmental statutes such as the Clean Air Act under which EPA may issue enforcement orders and that do not expressly bar pre-enforcement review.

General Electric unsuccessfully challenged EPA’s use of enforcement orders issued under CERCLA. Although the Supreme Court declined to review the GE case, CERCLA practitioners will be interested to see if the Court’s opinion has implications for EPA Superfund orders. Stay tuned.

Tags: Water


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