Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Petitioner, a consortium of suburban Chicago municipalities, selected as a solid waste disposal site an abandoned sand and gravel pit with excavation trenches that had evolved into permanent and seasonal ponds. Because the operation called for filling in some of the ponds, petitioner contacted federal respondents, including the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), to determine if a landfill permit was required under § 404(a) of the Clean Water Act (CWA), which authorizes the Corps to issue permits allowing the discharge of dredged or fill material into “navigable waters.” The CWA defines “navigable waters” as “the waters of the United States,” 33 U. S. C. § 1362(7), and the Corps’ regulations define such waters to include intrastate waters, “the use, degradation or destruction of which could affect interstate or foreign commerce,” 33 CFR § 328.3(a)(3). In 1986, the Corps attempted to clarify its jurisdiction, stating, in what has been dubbed the “Migratory Bird Rule,” that § 404(a) extends to intrastate waters that, inter alia, provide habitat for migratory birds. 51 Fed. Reg. 41217. Asserting jurisdiction over the instant site pursuant to that Rule, the Corps refused to issue a § 404(a) permit. When petitioner challenged the Corps’ jurisdiction and the merits of the permit denial, the District Court granted respondents summary judgment on the jurisdictional issue. The Seventh Circuit held that Congress has authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate intrastate waters and that the Migratory Bird Rule is a reasonable interpretation of the CWA.