Continuing Sackett v. EPA into 2023 and the Potential Impact on Environmental Justice

This blog is the third in a six-part series. Here are the first, second, fourth, and fifth parts.

Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency challenges both the authority and the integrity of the Clean Water Act. Focused on the much-contested definition of “waters of the United States”, Pacific Legal Foundation (which is representing the Sacketts), has argued against the EPA—which represents science and people everywhere. By disputing which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act, the Sacketts hope to enhance their own economic interests at the expense of their neighboring communities and the environment. In doing so, they put countless communities across the country at risk.

An old photo shows white, foamy pulp flowing directly into a freshwater river.
Before the Clean Water Act was established, companies had little to no restrictions on waste management or environmental stewardship. This photo from 1973 shows a wastestream from the Oxford Paper Company Mill at Rumford mixing directly with the Androscoggin River in Maine. Photo credit: Charles Steinhacker

Prior to the implementation and enactment of the Clean Water Act, bodies of water were full of pollutants, with many rivers oozing rather than flowing. Furthermore, the risks associated with regular contact with polluted water hit communities hard, as daily consumption or use of polluted water puts people at risk for a number of adverse health conditions, including asthma and other respiratory impacts, damaged nervous systems, gastrointestinal diseases, and cancers, to name a few. These outcomes are particularly amplified in marginalized communities as people of color, low-income, and non-English speaking communities are consistently excluded from experiencing the protections afforded from environmental regulations such as the Clean Water Act. As incremental progress has been made on ensuring equitable water quality outcomes through policy changes, the Sackett case puts these fragile positive changes in great jeopardy.

One example of a community facing unimaginable challenges related to a number of pollutants is located in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Home to the famed “Cancer Alley”, this community is visibly plagued by the harmful impacts of environmental pollution. St. James Parish is a predominantly Black community with a majority of households at or below the Federal Poverty Line that has historically been targeted by various big polluters such as oil and gas companies and plastic manufacturers for facility placement.

A group of people are marching in a street, holding a large banner that reads, "BIDEN: DECLARE A STATE OF EMERGENCY IN CANCER ALLEY"
RISE St. James and supporters marched October 2022 in Washington, D.C. to bring attention to climate and public health concerns in St. James Parish. Some participants hold signs calling on President Biden to declare a climate crisis and a state of emergency in St. James Parish, others hold signs honoring lost loved ones. Photo credit: Lani Furbank

The repercussions of the industrial presence of numerous polluting facilities continue to contribute to negative health and environmental outcomes for the community. But St. James Parish is also home to a resilient community, led by an environmental justice organization called Rise St. James. Their environmental justice advocacy and action is some of the strongest in the nation, and their efforts continue to challenge big polluters to justify siting and pollution actions with comprehensive analysis or leave St. James Parish.

The Sackett case initially developed because a couple—the Sacketts—desired to dredge and fill wetlands on their property. More information on the history of the Sackett case can be found here. In this landmark case, wetlands, some of the most ecologically beneficial ecosystems in the world, are challenged as constituted waters of the United States. This challenge allowed the Sacketts (through Pacific Legal Foundation) to ultimately have their case heard before the United States Supreme Court. 

Should the Sacketts win, communities like St. James Parish will continue to suffer. For example, a plastics polluter has applied for a wetlands permit in St. James Parish. Currently, and as a result of community action and advocacy, the permit has been placed under review pending an environmental justice analysis. The premise of that permit is very similar to that of the Sacketts, and would negatively impact existing wetlands. It could be approved if Sackett wins. Not only will this destroy a huge portion of the biodiversity and ecology in the area, but it will also have continued detrimental impacts on the people living there.

A small turtle surrounded by water takes in some sun atop a clump of grass and mud.
A Western painted turtle takes in some sun. Photo credit: Courtney Celley

Although more pollution is unimaginable given what people are already exposed to, a ruling in favor of the Sacketts will expose this and other communities to more environmental and social destruction. These are communities that are already inundated with an overabundance of polluters and pollution. Additional toxic industries will have the legal precedence to proceed with harmful environmental practices, which would totally disregard the harmful effects associated with largely unregulated pollution.

The Supreme Court Case is far from over. There is an urgent need for everyone to engage in advocacy around court proceedings and in favor of science-backed policy decisions that can help protect communities and provide the best outcome for our shared environmental future.