By John Flesher
AP Environmental Writer
Traverse City, MI (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday blocked an Obama administration rule that attempts to clarify which small streams, wetlands and other waterways the government can shield from pollution and development.
In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati put the regulations on hold nationwide until the court decides whether it has jurisdiction to consider lawsuits against them. More than half the states, including Wisconsin, have filed legal challenges, continuing a debate over federal water protection authority that two Supreme Court cases and extensive rulemaking efforts over the past 14 years have failed to resolve.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued their latest regulations in May, drawing fierce criticism from landowner groups and conservative lawmakers who described them as costly, confusing and a government power grab. Supporters said they would safeguard drinking water for 117 million Americans while preserving wetlands that filter out pollutants, control floods and provide crucial wildlife habitat.
The EPA and the Corps said in a joint statement that they respected the court’s decision and looked forward to defending the rule, which they said “represents the agencies’ continuing commitment to protecting and restoring the nation’s water resources that are vital for our health, environment, and economy.”
Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the court ruling was “a victory for all states, local governments, farmers, ranchers and landowners” and urged Congress to approve legislation that would require the agencies to rewrite the rule.
A federal judge in Fargo, N.D., blocked its implementation in 13 central and Western states shortly before it took effect in August. Eighteen states have filed challenges with the Sixth Circuit.
In their ruling Friday, Judges David W. McKeague and Richard Allen Griffin — both appointed by Republican President George W. Bush — acknowledged uncertainty over which court was the proper venue for the legal battle. But they said the delayed implementation “temporarily silences the whirlwind of confusion that springs from uncertainty about the requirements of the new rule and whether they will survive legal testing.”
Judge Damon Keith, appointed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter, dissented, saying the court should not interfere with the rule before the jurisdiction question was answered.