Supreme Court to consider challenge to Clean Water Act’s San Francisco rules

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a lawsuit from San Francisco against the Environmental Protection Agency challenging Clean Water Act regulations the city argues are overly vague.

In the case, City and County of San Franciso v. Environmental Protection Agency, the plaintiffs argued that the agency’s discharge rules for San Francisco are too ambiguous because they bar discharges that “cause or contribute to a violation of any applicable water quality standard,” rather than imposing quantifiable numerical limits.

“San Francisco has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure to meet the Act’s requirements and stands ready to invest further to reduce pollution if the Act so requires,” lawyers for the city wrote in the petition. “Generic water quality prohibitions, however, neither set limits on the quantities of pollutants that San Francisco may discharge nor prescribe management practices that the City must implement.”

“As a result, these prohibitions do not provide the City the directives it needs to assess whether it must invest further in controlling its discharges,” they added.

In its own brief, the EPA argued that these rules specifically argue discharges cannot violate water quality standards adopted by regional or state water resource control boards of the EPA.

“Those standards, in turn, establish specific limits to which petitioner’s discharges must conform,” attorneys wrote.

Last summer, a federal appeals court sided with the EPA, ruling that the agency has “broad authority to impose limitations necessary to ensure the discharger’s adherence to any applicable water quality standard.”

The nation’s highest court agreed to hear the city’s appeal, the only case granted Tuesday.

The court’s 6-3 conservative majority has frequently taken steps to limit the authorities of federal agencies in general and has sided against the EPA in multiple high-profile cases, including a challenge to Obama-era power plant rules and another Clean Water Act case on the definition of “waters of the United States” governed by the law.

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