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, is
similar to a market-based system that has operated for years under the Clean
Air Act to limit the threat of acid rain.

The new policy uses economic incentives to enforce water quality regulations.
It would allow industrial, agricultural and wastewater treatment plants and
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 have helped
clean up water.

A dozen states, including Michigan and Connecticut, have experimented with
water pollution credit trading, but the EPA program would make such trading a
national policy over the coming year or two. The administration and other
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 new
guidelines and launched a new rulemaking process that may eventually remove
as many as 20 million acres of the nation's wetlands from federal protection
from industrial pollution or unlawful development.

The rulemaking was prompted by a 2001 Supreme Court ruling denying federal
protection to certain isolated and non-navigable waterways and wetlands, but
critics say the administration is attempting unnecessarily to broaden the
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 "trust
states" to clean up more than 20,000 dirty rivers, lakes and estuaries. It
also has issued new guidelines specifying steps developers may take to
replace or restore destroyed wetlands that puts much greater emphasis than
before on protecting larger watersheds than trying to hold the line against
future net losses of marshes, swamps and bogs.

Whitman said at a news conference at the National Press Club that the
administration is "very intent on protecting the nation's watersheds," adding
that "our new water quality trading policy will result in cleaner water, at
less cost, and in less time."

But environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the
National Wildlife Federation, American Rivers and the Sierra Club charged
that Whitman and the administration are systematically undermining progress
under the Clean Water Act.

"The cumulative effect of these policies is very damaging," said Nancy
Stoner, director of the NRDC's Clean Water Project. "It's really Christmas
all over again for corporate polluters."

Environmental groups were divided over the water pollution trading proposal:
The World Resources Institute, an environmental policy group, hailed the plan
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 until
there are adequate safeguards to ensure measurable water quality improvements
and to prevent even limited trading in the toxic pollutants most likely to
create toxic "hot spots" in rivers and lakes.

Environmentalists are particularly concerned that the administration intends
to forge ahead with the new trading program while delaying a program known as
Total Maximum Daily Load, which requires states to address pollutants in
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 caught
fire in Cleveland -- with the goal of eliminating discharge of pollutants and
to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of
the Nation's waters." The overall act focused heavily on forcing factories
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. Public
Interest Research Group (PIRG). Moreover, 45 percent of the nation's water
bodies are still impaired by sediments, nutrients and microorganisms from
industrial and agricultural runoff that is not directly regulated, according
to studies.

"We know now that the biggest challenge remaining to us is non-point source
[or diffused] pollution," Whitman said. "This trading program is one of the
best ways to get at it."


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]

Back to Current Edition Citizen Review Archive LINKS Search This Site