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High court hears Idaho case challenging EPA wetlands action

WASHINGTON — Mike Sackett remembers what he thought when he saw the eye-popping fines of more than $30,000 a day that the Environmental Protection Agency was threatening to impose on him over a piece of Idaho property worth less than one day’s penalty.

“If they do this to us, we’re going to lose everything we have,’’ Sackett said.

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The EPA said that Sackett and his wife, Chantell, illegally filled in most of their 0.63-acre lot with dirt and rocks in preparation for building a home. The agency said the property is a wetlands that cannot be disturbed without a permit. The Sacketts had none.

They say they considered walking away from the property, near scenic Priest Lake, and a difficult fight with the federal government. Instead, they went to court, and now the Supreme Court is hearing their case, with implications well beyond their property.

The justices are considering how and when people can challenge the kind of order the Sacketts got. The EPA issues nearly 3,000 compliance orders a year that call on alleged violators of environmental laws to stop what they are doing and repair the harm they have caused.

Major business groups, homebuilders, road builders, and agricultural interests all have joined the Sacketts in urging the court to make it easier to contest compliance orders issued under several environmental laws.

Environmental groups say a purpose of the orders is to make it easier to negotiate a resolution without a protracted legal fight.

The Sacketts said they had no reason to suspect there were wetlands on their land.

But the Natural Resources Defense Council has produced documents that suggest the Sacketts have left out important parts of the story.

The documents, obtained from the Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Freedom of Information Act, show that the couple disregarded the opinion of a wetlands expert they hired. The Sacketts also passed up an offer from the corps, which shares jurisdiction over wetlands with the EPA, to seek a permit that might have allowed work to continue on the site with little delay, according to the council.

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