EPA to Allow Polluters to Buy Clean Water Credits
-- Environmental Groups Say Policy Weakens Law
January 14, 2003
By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post
The Bush administration yesterday announced plans to allow industrial
polluters to purchase "credits" from lesser polluters to
bring them into
compliance with the Clean Water Act.
The proposed National Water Quality Trading Policy, announced by
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman,
similar to a market-based system that has operated for years under
Air Act to limit the threat of acid rain.
The new policy uses economic incentives to enforce water quality
It would allow industrial, agricultural and wastewater treatment plants
operations to meet their regulatory obligations by purchasing offsetting
credits from facilities in the same watershed that have exceeded their
mandated water quality standards or from non-regulated farms that
clean up water.
A dozen states, including Michigan and Connecticut, have experimented
water pollution credit trading, but the EPA program would make such
national policy over the coming year or two. The administration and
advocates say it is a cost-effective alternative to traditional regulations
that require industry to install expensive anti-pollution equipment.
The new policy was unveiled three days after the administration issued
guidelines and launched a new rulemaking process that may eventually
as many as 20 million acres of the nation's wetlands from federal
from industrial pollution or unlawful development.
The rulemaking was prompted by a 2001 Supreme Court ruling denying
protection to certain isolated and non-navigable waterways and wetlands,
critics say the administration is attempting unnecessarily to broaden
impact of the ruling.
The administration recently announced another move to reduce federal
oversight of a key Clean Water Act anti-pollution program and instead
states" to clean up more than 20,000 dirty rivers, lakes and
also has issued new guidelines specifying steps developers may take
replace or restore destroyed wetlands that puts much greater emphasis
before on protecting larger watersheds than trying to hold the line
future net losses of marshes, swamps and bogs.
Whitman said at a news conference at the National Press Club that
administration is "very intent on protecting the nation's watersheds,"
that "our new water quality trading policy will result in cleaner
less cost, and in less time."
But environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense
National Wildlife Federation, American Rivers and the Sierra Club
that Whitman and the administration are systematically undermining
under the Clean Water Act.
"The cumulative effect of these policies is very damaging,"
Stoner, director of the NRDC's Clean Water Project. "It's really
all over again for corporate polluters."
Environmental groups were divided over the water pollution trading
The World Resources Institute, an environmental policy group, hailed
as a "win-win" for industry and the environment. But dozens
of groups and
activists signed a letter urging the EPA to postpone the new program
there are adequate safeguards to ensure measurable water quality improvements
and to prevent even limited trading in the toxic pollutants most likely
create toxic "hot spots" in rivers and lakes.
Environmentalists are particularly concerned that the administration
to forge ahead with the new trading program while delaying a program
Total Maximum Daily Load, which requires states to address pollutants
diffuse runoff from lawns, streets and farms as well as concentrated
pollution from smokestacks and drainpipes.
The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 -- after the Cuyahoga River
fire in Cleveland -- with the goal of eliminating discharge of pollutants
to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological
the Nation's waters." The overall act focused heavily on forcing
and sewage plants to upgrade their anti-pollution technology.
Yet nearly one-third of major industrial facilities and government-operated
sewage treatment plans have significantly violated pollution discharge
regulations during 2000 and 2001, according to a study by the U.S.
Interest Research Group (PIRG). Moreover, 45 percent of the nation's
bodies are still impaired by sediments, nutrients and microorganisms
industrial and agricultural runoff that is not directly regulated,
"We know now that the biggest challenge remaining to us is non-point
[or diffused] pollution," Whitman said. "This trading program
is one of the
best ways to get at it."