EPA looks at
new water cleanup rule
oversight of state plans seen as ‘too inflexible’
July 13 — The
Bush administration is considering a plan 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, internal Environmental Protection
Agency documents show.
THE PROPOSAL would reverse a
July 2000 Clinton administration rule requiring EPA approval of
states’ efforts to restore “impaired water bodies,” a
designation applying to about 300,000 miles of rivers and shorelines
and 5 million acres of lakes.
“This makes a lot more sense,” said David Salmonsen, a
lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau. “You don’t want to force
people out of business with ineffective regulations.”
The rule was supported by many
environmentalists, but it has been criticized by farm groups, timber
firms and municipalities that fear they could face onerous new
restrictions on polluted runoff.
EPA Administrator Christine
Todd Whitman has not decided whether to adopt the “watershed
protection strategy.” Her spokesman said that she hoped to make a
decision within a few weeks, and that a July 2 EPA presentation of
the strategy to Whitman — provided to The Washington Post by a
critic who believes the proposal will weaken watershed protection
— was only an option.
Still, Whitman has vowed to
change the controversial rule, and her staff’s presentation
reflects her emphasis on flexibility and environmental results over
command-and-control federal regulation and strict enforcement.
It describes the Clinton rule
as “too inflexible, too much EPA control” and proposes that
“EPA will not review, approve or backstop” states’ plans to
comply with water-quality standards. Instead, the proposal would
“trust states to do planning and implementation,” in order to
“achieve steady reasonable progress towards achieving water
John Podesta, who was chief of
staff to President Bill Clinton, said “the whole point” of the
rule — adopted in response to citizens’ lawsuits in 34 states
— was to beef up EPA enforcement of a program that state officials
have largely ignored. This program, known as Total Maximum Daily
Load, or TMDL, is a priority among conservation activists.
“The Bush EPA must be
suffering from collective amnesia,” said Daniel Rosenberg, an
attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The states
had three decades to implement this program and failed. Now EPA
thinks the states can suddenly do the job.”
program was never the main thrust of the Clean Water Act, which was
passed in 1972 after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland.
The overall act focused heavily on forcing factories and sewage
plants to upgrade their anti-pollution technology, which has led to
tremendous improvements in water quality for rivers fouled by
program was seen as a kind of backup, focusing on standards for
entire water bodies instead of individual polluters. It required
states to address pollutants in diffuse runoff from lawns, streets
and farms as well as concentrated pollution from smokestacks and
But those standards were rarely
enforced, which led to the litigation boom. Today, 44 percent of the
nation’s water bodies are still “impaired” by sediments,
nutrients and microorganisms that elude the rest of the Clean Water
Act’s pollution controls. Much of the pollutants are produced by
the problem, the Clinton rule directed states to determine the
maximum pollution load each water body can handle, then develop
broad regulatory plans over 10 to 15 years to meet those targets,
subject to EPA approval. Whitman’s predecessor, Carole M. Browner,
once called the rule “the single most important program we can
adopt to address the remaining water pollution problems in this
Congress did not agree. As the
Clinton administration was preparing the rule, critics attached to
an unrelated spending bill a moratorium barring the EPA from
spending any money on it.SCIENTIFIC
Last year, a National Academy
of Sciences study raised new questions about the TMDL program,
concluding, “Considerable uncertainty exists about whether some of
these waters violate pollution standards.” Whitman then announced
she would extend the moratorium until 2003 and change the rules
before putting them into effect.
Now Whitman is considering the
new proposal, which would emphasize states’ planning for entire
watersheds instead of individual water bodies, and would provide
states with greater flexibility to “downgrade” water quality
standards for specific rivers and lakes.
She is also deciding whether to
propose changes through a new or amended rule, which would require a
two-year public process, or through internal guidance, which would
“It’s not a question of
whether or not to improve the process,” said Whitman’s
spokesman, Joe Martyak. “It’s a question of how we go about it.
Her principal focus is going to be results.”
According to the July 2
presentation, state water quality directors have indicated
“widespread state support for EPA’s general direction” on the
TMDL issue. But Democrats and environmentalists are eager to portray
the Bush administration as hostile to nature, and they have
exploited controversies at EPA ranging from arsenic standards for
drinking water to regulation of carbon dioxide emissions.
Whitman has also been
criticized over one rule change removing obstacles to
mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, and another making it
easier for coal-fired power plants to renovate without upgrading
their air pollution controls.
These water quality rules could
“We tried to put teeth into
the program so it couldn’t just drift anymore,” Podesta said.
“I guess now the program is going to the dentist to get its teeth
© 2002 The Washington Post