E.P.A. Delays Further Rules of Clinton Era


WASHINGTON, July 16 — The Environmental Protection Agency said today that it intended to wait until at least 2003 before requiring states to adopt strict new water-pollution guidelines that were to have taken effect last year.

The rules, drafted by the Clinton administration, require the states to come up with broad plans to protect some 21,000 rivers, streams and lakes classified as "impaired." But they have been clouded by opposition from many states and farm organizations, as well as by criticism from the National Academy of Sciences, which issued a report last month describing the plan as flawed. Under a moratorium imposed by critics in Congress, the E.P.A. has been barred from enforcing the rules since they were issued last July.

A spokeswoman for the agency said today that the Bush administration planned to make "necessary changes" to the rules over the next 18 months before seeking to put them into effect.

"This administration needs an opportunity to sit down with all the parties and work out something that's workable," said the spokeswoman, Tina Kreisher.

The move was the latest by the new administration to defer, review, revise or even overturn major environmental actions taken under President Bill Clinton, and it was criticized in strong terms by environmentalists.

"What they're looking at is options for weakening the rule, and that is bad news from an environmental standpoint," said Nancy Stoner, director of the clean water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The new rules were aimed in particular at problems caused by agricultural runoff, which have often escaped existing pollution controls. The previous E.P.A. chief, Carol M. Browner, had called the regulations "the single most important program we can adopt to address the remaining water pollution problems in this country."

The rules require states to draw up detailed plans to reduce pollution in rivers, streams and lakes that do not meet federal standards for swimming and fishing, a total the agency says would amount to about 40 percent of the nation's waterways.

Under the approach, states are required to determine a "total maximum daily load" of pollutants that each body of water can safely tolerate, and then to find ways to reduce the pollutants below that amount by addressing not just single-point pollution sources like smokestacks and drainpipes but also problems that cannot be traced back to a single point, like runoff from city streets, businesses and chemically treated lawns and farmland.

Under the plan, states would have 8 to 13 years to develop the plans and start cleanup and water-quality-restoration programs.

But opponents, led by national agriculture and timber groups, have argued that the rules would cost billions of dollars to carry out and would deprive states of their ability to address water pollution through voluntary programs.

The E.P.A.'s description of its plan to postpone any enforcement of the regulations was included in a filing submitted today to a federal appeals court in Washington. The filing, a response to legal challenges raised by some of the opponents, asked that any judicial rulings on the matter be put off for 18 months, to allow the agency time to complete its review.

Most recently, some of the critics' arguments have been reinforced by a report from the National Academy of Sciences that was prepared at the request of Congress. The report, issued last month by an eight-member panel of scientists, questioned whether states had the resources to enforce the rules, and it suggested that the measures used to identify polluted bodies of water might be flawed.

"Considerable uncertainty exists about whether some of these waters violate pollution standards," the panel said in a statement accompanying the report.

Other major environmental actions taken under President Clinton that are now being reviewed by the Bush administration include rules that would have placed one-third of the national forests off limits to most development, and others that would have made a big reduction in the permissible standard for arsenic in drinking water.

The new administration has upheld other Clinton-era environmental initiatives, however, among them rules scaling back emissions of pollutants from diesel-powered buses and big trucks, and others expanding protection for tens of thousands of acres of wetlands across the United States.