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
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 quality
"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."
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
largely ignored. This program, known as Total Maximum
Daily Load, or TMDL, is a priority among conservation
"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."
The TMDL 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 industry.
The TMDL 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 drainpipes.
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
To address 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.
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
These water quality rules could be next.
"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 removed."