Bush officials seek delay on water cleanup rules

Tuesday, July 17, 2001

By ERIC PIANIN
Washington Post News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration Monday sought a lengthy delay in adopting new rules for cleaning up thousands of the country's polluted lakes, rivers, and streams while it attempts to rewrite the measures.

The rules, drafted by the Clinton administration, have been sharply criticized by conservative Republicans in Congress and challenged in court by utilities, manufacturers, and farm groups that say they could force them to spend tens of billions of dollars more annually on water cleanup.

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department asked the District of Columbia Circuit Court to postpone action on the legal challenge for 18 months while the administration reviews the rule and attempts to make it more "workable" and acceptable to critics.

"In order to ensure that this nation's bodies of water are cleaned up, we need an effective national program that involves the active participation and support of all levels of government and local communities," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said. "Unfortunately, many have said the rule designed to implement the . . . program falls short of achieving the goals."

The regulation was among dozens of environmental rules issued by the Clinton administration that Bush officials have reviewed since taking office, but this one potentially could have the most far-reaching impact -- affecting virtually every region and state in the country. The financial implications of the rule could affect businesses as diverse as the poultry industry on Maryland's Eastern Shore, cattle ranchers in the Southwest, fertilizer manufacturers, and energy companies.

Issued in July 2000, the rule would mark a dramatic shift in enforcement strategy under the 1972 Clean Water Act, putting far greater emphasis on reducing runoff of agricultural waste, fertilizer, and sediment than before. The rule would require states to develop plans and start cleanup and water quality restoration programs within eight to 13 years.

The program would cover about 21,000 bodies of water -- from lakes and ponds to segments of streams and major rivers -- that were determined to be too polluted for fishing and swimming because of storm-water and agricultural runoff.

Whitman stressed that even with the Clinton rule in abeyance, the EPA was continuing to regulate industry and issue permits to control the discharge of pollution as required by the Clean Water Act.

The rule has been challenged by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the fertilizer industry, utilities, and big businesses as unlawful and potentially a devastating financial burden. "We believe the rule far extends the EPA's authority under the Clean Water Act," said Faith Burns, an associate director for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

But environmentalists said the administration's decision would set back or even undermine a program critical to long-term efforts to clean up the nation's waterways.

"We feel we shouldn't be starting down the road of weakening important water pollution regulations," said Howard Fox, an attorney for the Earthjustice law firm, which is representing environmental groups defending the regulation in court. "This water-quality program was supposed to be put in place over 20 years ago. Instead of dickering about the details, we ought to be getting on with it."

Under the Clean Water Act, each state must identify polluted waters and establish "total maximum daily loads," which determine the amount by which sources of pollution would need to be reduced to meet the state's standards. Beginning in the 1990s, the federal government -- responding to pressure from environmentalists -- focused more on sources of pollution other than industry and sewage treatment, such as runoff, nutrients, and sediments.

This put pressure on farmers, cattle ranchers, and major agribusinesses to begin sharing in the cost of cleaning up streams, rivers, and lakes that they helped to pollute. Yet under the new rule, other industries and utilities that had agreed to install expensive new technology to cut down on pollution as a condition of receiving a permit would still be required to share in the overall cleanup costs.

In the face of mounting opposition from industry officials, Congress in October placed the regulation on hold and ordered the National Academy of Sciences to assess the scientific basis of the overall water cleanup program.

An academy panel issued a report June 15 recommending a more science-based approach and suggesting that some of the rivers and streams be dropped from a cleanup list until better standards are devised.

The panel agreed that water pollution remains a serious problem and that the program forcing cleanup should be continued despite scientific uncertainties. Whitman cited the study's findings in seeking time to review the rule. She said her agency intends to propose necessary changes by the spring of 2002.