Obama took a short ride over to the Environmental Protection Agency to thank EPA staff members "for their hard work" to make sure " the air we breathe, the water we drink, the foods we eat are safe."
"Because of you, across the board, we're cutting down on acid rain and air pollution," Obama said as he praised EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for her leadership. "We're making our drinking water cleaner and safer. We're creating healthier communities. But that's not all. Safeguarding our environment is also about strengthening our economy.
"I do not buy the notion that we have to make a choice between having clean air and clean water and growing this economy in a robust way. I think that is a false debate."
The comments came as the U.S. Supreme Court accused the EPA of overreaching. Justice Antonin Scalia criticized the agency's "high-handedness" when dealing with private property and Justice Samuel Alito described some EPA measures as "outrageous."
Several conservative Supreme Court members criticized the agency during oral arguments Monday, accusing the agency of heavy-handedness when it told an Idaho couple they could not challenge an order declaring their future home site a "protected wetlands."
Mike and Chantell Sackett wanted to build a home on a 0.63-acre lot near Priest Lake, in the northernmost portion of the Idaho Panhandle, 80 miles north of Spokane, Wash. After three days of bringing in fill dirt and preparing for construction in 2007, they were ordered by EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials to stop the project because there was a possibility the land contained wetlands.
Six months later, the EPA sent the Sacketts a "compliance order," saying the land must be restored as a wetlands before the couple could apply for a building permit.
The Sacketts sought to challenge the order, but the EPA and lower courts said they couldn't.
The EPA issues nearly 3,000 compliance orders a year, records indicate.
The government acknowledged to the court Monday fines for failing to comply with the orders could be as much as $75,000 a day.
"If you related the facts of this case ... to an ordinary homeowner, don't you think most ordinary homeowners would say this kind of thing can't happen in the United States?" Alito, nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005, asked Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, who represents the EPA.
"You buy property to build a house," Alito continued. "You think maybe there is a little drainage problem in part of your lot, so you start to build the house and then you get an order from the EPA which says: You have filled in wetlands, so you can't build your house. Remove the fill, put in all kinds of plants ... and for every day that you don't do all this you are accumulating a potential fine of $75,000."
Chief Justice John Roberts, also nominated by Bush in 2005, pointed to what he said was the property owners' dilemma.
"What would you do, Mr. Stewart, if you received this compliance order?" Roberts asked. "You don't think your property has wetlands on it and you get this compliance order from the EPA. What would you do?"
Stewart said: "I think at that stage your options would be limited. You could apply for an after-the-fact permit."
Roberts immediately said: "You wouldn't do that, right? You know you will never get an after-the-fact permit if the EPA has sent you a compliance order saying you've got wetlands."
The court said it would decide whether the EPA's use of non-reviewable compliance orders violated the Sacketts' right to "due process," which orders a government to respect all the legal rights owed to a person under the law.
"For 75 years, the courts have interpreted statutes with an eye toward permitting judicial review, not the opposite," Justice Stephen Breyer said Monday.