Michael and Chantelle Sackett bought some Idaho land and began placing gravel fill on the site to prepare for laying a foundation for their dream home. Then they got something from the EPA: a “Compliance Order,” declaring that they were in violation of the Clean Water Act, because their land had been deemed a “wetland” subject to federal jurisdiction.
By beginning construction without a federal permit, the Sacketts were breaking the law and exposing themselves to civil and possibly criminal penalties, according to the Order. The Order instructed them to stop their construction and restore the property to its “original state” – it even told them what type of shrubbery to plant on the site, and exactly where to plant it. If they failed to comply with the order, they were subject to $37,500 fines per day.
The Sacketts were, understandably, shocked: they had no reason to think their property was a wetland; their neighbors had been allowed to build homes, and there was no indication in their title documents that the land was subject to federal control. So they asked for a hearing – and that was when they learned that the Compliance Order process does not entitle them to a hearing. They must either comply with the Order immediately to avoid the fines, or play chicken with the EPA – waiting until the EPA decides to file an “enforcement action.” At that time, they would be allowed to present their arguments that the land is not actually a “wetland.” But of course, by that time, the fines would have accumulated to hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.
Worse, these Compliance Orders are issued by a single EPA bureaucrat, on the basis of “any evidence.” That’s the language of the statute itself – and federal courts have interpreted “any evidence” to mean even an anonymous phone call or a newspaper story.
And a Compliance Order doesn’t just demand that you obey EPA’s orders or face fines – ignoring a Compliance Order is a separately punishable offense against federal law, aside from the liability for any environmental damage. In other words, you can face penalties for violating the Clean Water Act and also for ignoring a Compliance Order. Worse still, ignoring a Compliance Order can serve as the basis of a finding of “wilfulness,” and thus the basis of criminal charges.
Pacific Legal Foundation represents the Sacketts and argues that they should have their day in court – either under federal statutes like the Administrative Procedure Act or under the Due Process Clause – without having to face the possibility of devastating penalties. PLF lawyer Damien Schiff argued the case today before the Supreme Court; while the justices were active in probing the weaknesses of both sides, the government’s lawyer didn’t do the EPA any favors. So today may have ended being a very good day for the Sacketts, even if the New York Times editorial page took the alarmist stance that allowing them to seek pre-enforcement judicial review would be a ”big victory to corporations and developers who want to evade the requirements of the Clean Water Act.”