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Bush to Delay Plan for Clean Waterways

July 17, 2001|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Monday signaled its intention to soften a Clinton administration plan for cleaning up America's waterways by controlling runoff from farms, cities and other sources of water pollution.

Environmentalists denounced the decision as another in a string of rollbacks of major Clinton administration efforts to fight pollution and protect public lands. But some state water quality officials and farmers expressed relief at the government's decision to reconsider what they regarded as an unworkable federal mandate.

The development has broad implications for future efforts to clean up about 20,000 waterways that remain polluted three decades after the Clean Water Act was signed. The potential effect is less significant in California because the state already is implementing an aggressive policy to fight pollution from runoff.

If allowed to stand, the Clinton plan would require states to begin regulating a wide range of pollutants contained in runoff: agricultural fertilizers and pesticides; pathogens from animal manure; hazardous substances in municipal trash; and oil and grease from cars and trucks.

The regulations are intended to fulfill a Clean Water Act requirement that state officials identify waterways not meeting quality standards and to develop plans to make streams, lakes and bays hospitable for swimmers, fish and shellfish. For three decades, the main focus of government pollution fighters on the national, state and local levels has been cracking down on big industrial sources of water pollution. But many other sources of pollution, such as runoff from farms and silt from timber harvests, were largely ignored.

The Environmental Protection Agency outlined its decision to reconsider the regulations in a request to a federal appeals court to delay consideration of several legal challenges of the Clinton administration regulations.

"I am asking for this additional time to listen carefully to all parties with a stake in restoring America's waters--states, cities, small towns and rural communities, plus industry, the environmental community and our farmers--to find a better way to finish the important job of cleaning our great rivers, lakes and streams," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said.

The agency did not specify how it would alter the Clinton administration plan except to say it would take into consideration the complaints of "stakeholders," such as farmers and state water quality officials. The revised approach will be proposed next spring to be finalized by spring 2003.

"We believe that there will be necessary changes," EPA spokeswoman Tina Kreisher says.

Environmentalists, who supported the Clinton regulations, and opponents of the rule said they expected the Bush administration approach to be less stringent.

"It's very unlikely they would come up with a tougher, more effective rule out of this process," said Ed Hopkins of the Sierra Club.

"Today, the Bush administration is setting in motion a process designed not only to delay but also to weaken the Clean Water Act's primary tool for cleaning up lakes, beaches, rivers and streams," said Mike Lozeau, staff attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental legal group that has been suing the state and federal governments to comply with the Clean Water Act provision in question.

But large water agencies supported the plan because it required states to pay more attention to contaminants affecting drinking water quality, and they were concerned about Whitman's decision to revisit the regulations.

"We feel that without the rule's new provisions, protection of sources of drinking water would remain a low priority for many states," said Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of the Assn. of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

The Clinton administration regulations were the result of a four-year collaboration between EPA and state water quality managers. But some state officials protested the regulations to the Clinton administration and said Monday they believed the final rule was too prescriptive and too expensive for many states to implement.

"It is the view of the majority of the state water quality program managers responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the clean water programs that this set of rules is technically, scientifically and fiscally unworkable," said J. David Holm, president of the Assn. of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators, in a letter last year to then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner.

The challenge is great because the rule requires states to decide the acceptable levels of various pollutants in their waterways. The states then must identify the sources of those pollutants and plot remedies. The sources can be difficult to isolate because runoff from farms, parking lots, golf courses and suburban lawns are harder to measure than pollutants spewing from a discharge pipe.

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