Alaska Gov. Dunleavy says court decision limiting federal regulation of wetlands aids ‘responsible development’

underwater grasses in a tundra pond, with a boardwalk
More than 60% of America’s wetlands are in Alaska. This is from Pinky’s Park Boardwalk in Bethel. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday issued a decision limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority over wetlands, and the implications for Alaska, home to 63% of the nation’s wetlands, could be substantial.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy applauded the ruling.

“This ruling stands to promote the kind of responsible development my Administration is working to bring to Alaska,” he said in a news release.

The case, called Sackett vs. EPA, is about what constitutes “waters of the United States” — meaning how far, inland and upland, the Clean Water Act applies. 

One project that could be affected is the proposed Pebble Mine, upstream from Bristol Bay. In January the EPA used its veto authority under the Clean Water Act to block the project.

“While we don’t know what impact this decision could have on the project, it has been our position that the EPA exceeded its authority with its preemptive veto of Pebble,” Pebble CEO John Shively said by email. “We also believe that this decision is in line with moving the EPA closer to the original authority it was granted under the Clean Water Act.”

Until now, property owners have needed a federal permit, for instance, to fill a bog or stream, if there’s a “significant nexus” between the area and a larger waterway that’s considered navigable. 

With the Sackett decision, the court says the federal law applies only if there’s a “continuous surface connection” between the area and a navigable waterway.

Attorney Bridget Psarianos at the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska predicts it will be a tough test to follow in Alaska.

“We have these big braided rivers that tend to shift and move,” she said. “There’s many, many places that are suffering from a lot of erosion … And so it’s changing where a lot of these waterways are.”

Pebble Mine opponent Alannah Hurley, director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said the Sackett case isn’t a threat to the EPA’s determination blocking the mine.

“The decision is still incredibly concerning, as it narrows the range of waters protected by the Clean Water Act and will severely limit protections for critical wetlands, rivers and lakes,” she said.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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