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Environmentalists win in wetlands case

3/16/2005

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The federal government has the authority to regulate farming, mining or any other activity that might alter or destroy wetlands.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that authority recently when it examined the case of a California farmer who was fined nearly $9 million for using a "deep ripping" technique to plow wetlands on his property without a permit.

Lawyers for Angelo Tsakopoulos had argued that plowing the wetlands was legal because the mud and dirt ripped up did not fit the federal Clean Water Act's definition of "addition of a pollutant" to the wetlands. Also, Tsakopoulos' lawyer argued, even if mud and dirt were classified as pollutants by definition, deep ripping is legal because it falls under an exemption that permits normal farming activities.

But the district, appeals, and Supreme courts all determined that mud, clay and rocks churned up could be considered pollutants. And the courts also declared that deep ripping does not fall under the definition of a normal farming exemption because Tsakopoulos used the technique to convert rangeland into orchards and vineyards.

Had this case been decided in favor of the farmer, environmentalists had feared that it would open the door to wholesale wetlands destruction.

Approval of destruction that doesn't involve an "addition of an outside pollutant" would have legalized wetlands destruction, said environmentalists who are monitoring the case. Additionally, they said, had the court allowed an exemption for agriculture, it would have legalized the most widespread activity for which wetlands are destroyed.

"Most wetlands are destroyed to plant a crop," said Tim Searchinger of Environmental Defense.

"If you wanted to build a shopping center, all you'd have to do would be plant crops first, and then put in your shopping center."