Supreme Court’s Chevron Ruling Could Harm Water Quality: Lawyers

Environmental lawyers warn that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn the long-standing Chevron deference could harm efforts to protect water quality.

This ruling, which strips federal agencies of their interpretive authority, may have particularly significant consequences for states like Wisconsin already grappling with water contamination issues.

The Court’s decision in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo eliminates a 40-year-old precedent that required judges to defer to federal agencies’ expertise when interpreting ambiguous statutes. Instead, the courts will now have the final say, even on highly technical matters.

Milwaukee River
This aerial picture shows a boat on the Milwaukee River ahead of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on July 1, 2024. States like Wisconsin are contending with water quality issues after Chevron ruling….

In Wisconsin, where efforts to combat PFAS contamination have been ongoing, the ruling adds another layer of complexity to an already difficult situation. Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, commented on the potential delays to the Wisconsin Examiner.

“We’ve known for many, many years, and in some cases even decades now, that certain PFAS compounds pose serious risks to human health. It is just in the last year that EPA has updated the Safe Drinking Water Act for six of the hundreds of PFAS compounds,” he said.

The Enviromental Protection Agency (EPA) has only recently started setting drinking water standards for PFAS, often called “forever chemicals.” Under the new ruling, such regulations could face protracted legal battles.

For Wisconsin, the impact of this federal ruling is compounded by a 2018 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in Tetra Tech v. Department of Revenue, which had already ended the practice of deferring to state agencies’ interpretations of statutes. This state-level change, combined with the new federal ruling, creates additional challenges for environmental protection.

“It’s more important for those of us in Wisconsin to defend and rebuild the power of our state to act in the public interest,” Gibart argues. He adds that the weakening of federal government power makes it even more crucial for Wisconsin to strengthen its own regulatory authority.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, told the Wisconsin Examiner that the decision “radically shifts and re-allocates constitutional power from the executive branch and the legislative branch of government to the judiciary.” This power shift could affect agencies’ ability to protect not just rivers and lakes, but also air quality and public lands.

The decision has split opinion along political lines. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell stated the decision “leaves no room for an unelected bureaucracy to co-opt this authority for itself,” while Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent that the court had given itself “exclusive power over every open issue – no matter how expertise-driven or policy-laden – involving the meaning of regulatory law.”

Newsweek contacted both McConnell and Kagan’s offices for further comment via email on Saturday.

The ruling could also have implications for ongoing legal challenges. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is currently suing to prevent the state’s Department of Natural Resources from applying the spills law to PFAS. The lawsuit also wants to end the requirement that factory farms obtain permits for handling manure. The end of Chevron deference at the federal level may influence how such cases are decided.

Gibart notes to the Wisconsin Examiner that these state-level legal attacks on regulatory power, combined with the federal ruling, make it “even more important for those of us in Wisconsin to defend and rebuild the power of our state to act in the public interest.”

Advocates are preparing for potential legal challenges that could affect critical protections. They’re calling for efforts to strengthen regulatory authority at both federal and state levels, arguing that the stakes for public health and the environment are significant.