Published on Friday, July 7, 2000 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
GOP Tacks Massive Cut In Water Pollution Clean Up Program Onto Clinton/Gore's Colombian Package
Clinton Likely To Sign Anyway
by Robert McClure
Congress has quietly moved to scuttle a federal program to clean up pollution in 40 percent of the nation's lakes, streams, bays and rivers.

Inserting a provision into a must-pass spending bill late at night, congressional leaders forbade the Environmental Protection Agency from completing a water-cleanup rule in the works for several years.

President Clinton has until Thursday to decide whether to sign the bill. He is likely to do so, because it includes emergency funding for disaster relief, money for U.S. troops in Kosovo and financing for a Clinton administration initiative to halt illegal drugs from Colombia.

"This was a highly anti-environmental measure that was put in at the last minute that the EPA and the administration strongly object to," said Dave Cohen, a spokesman for the EPA.

At issue are the EPA's plans to meet the Clean Water Act's goal of making most bodies of water fit for swimming, fishing and animal life. Under a regulation the administration was about to make final, states would have to draw up plans for cleaning up the 20,000 or so bays, lakes, rivers and streams still considered polluted.

Early efforts to cleanse these bodies of water focused on major pollution sources such as sewage-treatment plants, factories and mining operations, where dirty water is dumped through pipes into a stream, lake or bay.

The new rule sought to deal with another big chunk of the problem: the sometimes foul concoction that drains off large open spaces such as farms and ranches after a heavy rain.

The proposed regulations would have established what regulators call a "total maximum daily load" -- a pollution budget of sorts for each polluted stream, lake, river and bay. Then, states would have to explain how they plan to reduce pollution to acceptable levels over the next 15 years.

But the idea ran into heavy protest, particularly among agriculture interests that have traditionally escaped much regulation under the Clean Water Act. Farm interests feared they would face strict new limits that Congress never authorized when the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, according to congressional staff members.

Nearly half the members of the House signed on as co-sponsors of various legislative efforts to turn back the rule, according to aides for Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

"Over 20 public forums around the country have drawn thousands of local citizens voicing united opposition to the rules," Combest and a bipartisan group of Agriculture Committee members wrote in a letter to the Clinton administration last week. "The vigorous oversight and public involvement have raised substantial uncertainty about the integrity of the process, cost analysis and science associated with EPA's proposals."

EPA had been prepared to adopt the rule in the next month or two. The prohibition against doing that was inserted either late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning -- congressional staff members' recollections vary -- when House and Senate negotiators were meeting to iron out differences in their versions of the spending bill.

Within a day of the provision's being inserted, six Senate Democrats protested that the issue had never been debated in their chamber.

"The process is, in a word, outrageous," the Democratic senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "By . . . slipping the provision into an unrelated conference report that cannot be amended, on a bill that provides emergency funding for many urgent national needs, the proponents of the provision undermine their own credibility and further weaken public confidence in our deliberative process."

The rule was intended to encourage states to set up programs to regulate the remaining pollution sources. But it would not directly require farmers to do anything, said Nina Bell, director of Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates, who served on an advisory committee that helped draw up the new rule.

Nevertheless, the rule could ultimately lead to stronger state regulation of farms' water pollution.

The rule "highlights agriculture's contribution to water pollution, talks about taking responsibility, (and) highlights that (farmers) are not necessarily the best stewards of the land," Bell said. "It will make it clear who is responsible for doing what, and landowners don't want the light shined on what they are doing."

Because of lawsuits brought by Bell's group and others, it's unclear how much effect the prohibition would have in the Pacific Northwest.

To resolve those lawsuits, Washington state already has agreed to draw up pollution limits for bodies of water here by 2013. In Oregon, a judge is deciding whether that state's plans must be finished in six months or in 10 years, Bell said.

The effect of the congressional action, she fears, could derail those efforts by letting Washington and Oregon weaken their cleanup plans.

In Washington, about two-thirds of the state's bays do not meet cleanup goals. About one-third of lakes and two-fifths of rivers and streams don't make the cut.

Randy Smith, director of the regional EPA Office of Water, said the state has prepared cleanup plans for 229 bodies of water. Because of the state's agreement when it settled the lawsuit brought by Bell's group, Washington would have to continue making plans to clean up the rest, he said.

The issue is probably not dead in Congress, said Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates. She said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., one of the signers of the letter of protest, is considering bringing up the topic in debates on next year's budget.

"There's no reason to believe this is over," Bell said.

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