Learning to Name Environmental Problems
It was only within the Nineteen Sixties that the Supreme Court learned to discuss “pollution” and “wilderness.”
There are Supreme Court cases going back a century or more coping with what we’d now consider environmental issues resembling preserving nature or air pollution. But when did the Court start seeing filthy rivers and smokey cities as embodiments of the identical problem, despite their striking physical differences? And when it did start considering of “wilderness” as a very good thing slightly than a failure to make use of available resources?
It was just once that shift was made that we could begin to think about contaminated rivers, smog, and clearcutting as a part of the identical body of law. In other words, it was only then that we could when it comes to “environmental law” slightly than distinct bodies of rules governing a scattering of various situations.
I started with a Westlaw seek for the term “air pollution.” The earliest opinion I discovered was Huron Portland Cement Co. v. City of Detroit. This 1960 case involved the appliance of Detroit’s air pollution ordinance to a ship docked there. The ship owner argued that the ordinance was preempted by federal boiler safety regulations and interfered with interstate commerce. Justice Potter Stewart’s majority opinion emphasized that, unlike the federal safety regulations, “the only real aim of the Detroit ordinance is the elimination of air pollution to guard the health and enhance the cleanliness of the area people.” Interestingly, Justice Douglas who often championed environmental causes, dissented on the bottom that the ordinance infringed the ship’s federal license.
The primary use of the term “water pollution” got here later, in a 1967 dissent from denial of certiorari. In Snohomish County v. Seattle Disposal Co. This was principally an Indian law case, coping with the appliance of a county landfill regulation to non-Indian owners of land inside an Indian reservation. The state court had held that the ordinance couldn’t apply throughout the reservation. Justice William O. Douglas, nevertheless, saw possible merit within the argument that “the immunity of Indian lands to a state ‘encumbrance’ cannot frustrate state programs to examine air and water pollution.” He thought the Court should consider whether a state should give you the chance to stop sewage dumped on Indians’ lands from draining into streams which flow into water supplies outside Indian lands.”
Justice Douglas wrote the bulk opinion, nevertheless, within the Court’s first reference to “wilderness” as something worthy of preservation. Udall v. Federal Power Commission, a 1967 case, involving the proposed construction of a dam on the Snake River. The Court ruled that the Commission had failed to contemplate key issues: “including future power demand and provide, alternate sources of power, the general public interest in preserving reaches of untamed rivers and wilderness areas, the preservation of anadromous fish [salmon] for industrial and recreational purposes, and the protection of wildlife.” This was three years after Congress had passed the Wilderness Act, so the Court was lagging Congress.
The Court had begun to pay more attention to environmental issues in other ways in the course of the Nineteen Sixties, resembling a series of cases creatively expanding federal jurisdiction over water pollution under an 1899 statute that primarily handled obstacles to navigation. The Nineteen Sixties were also Congress’s first forays into issues like air and water pollution, wilderness protection, and the endangered species. These developments set the stage for the blossoming of federal environmental law with the passages of NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other major laws in the last decade that followed.