WASHINGTON -- Seeking to save money and improve the nation's water quality, the Clinton administration unveiled a package of clean water proposals yesterday that backers say could significantly help the Chesapeake Bay.
The new proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency calls for adding $4 billion to a fund to improve sewage treatment plants; targeting runoff from farms and developments; and reducing air pollution from cars and power plants that affect water quality, said Robert Perciasepe, assistant EPA administrator for water.
While Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials said they wanted more time to study the package before commenting, Mr. Perciasepe said the changes in the law would greatly aid Maryland's water quality.
"Fixing sewer overflow . . . and providing more money for states -- all of this is good for Chesapeake Bay," said Mr. Perciasepe, formerly Maryland's secretary of the environment.
The benefits to the bay are just a small part of what the administration hopes to achieve with its new clean water package, which is aimed at cleaning up the nation's drinking water without breaking the bank.
"Every American expects and deserves clean water," said EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner at a Capitol Hill news conference. "We expect our drinking water to be the cleanest in the world."
The issue of clean water gained national attention last year after thousands were sickened by contaminated tap water in Milwaukee. In December, Washington area residents were forced to boil their water or use bottled supplies after a treatment plant failed in the wake of a severe storm.
Currently, Ms. Browner said, nearly 40 percent of the nation's rivers, lakes and other waterways are unsafe for drinking, swimming, fishing or boating.
The administration's new package would provide "fundamental changes" in existing laws, Ms. Browner said, while it would save government and private industry an estimated $30 billion in the coming years.
The nation now spends $60 billion controlling water pollution, an amount which could rise to an estimated $100 billion if existing laws were fully carried out. Ms. Browner maintained that her package would increase that sum to only $70 billion.
Today, a Senate subcommittee will vote on legislation to reauthorize the Clean Water Act backed by Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
The current version of the law will expire this year, if Congress doesn't approve the reauthorization. The full committee is expected to send the bill to the Senate floor late this month, and a vote by the Senate could take place in the spring. Mr. Baucus said his proposal didn't differ significantly from the administration's plan.
Among the highlights of the proposal:
* Adding $4 billion to a $9 billion loan fund, due to expire soon, that states can use to improve sewage treatment and control of waste water.
* Giving local communities more flexibility in using federal funds.
* Requiring courts to impose fines equal to profits gained by polluters in breaking the law.
* Toughening controls on agricultural runoff, eventually limiting the use of the most toxic chemicals if they are found to pollute lakes and streams, and curbing the overall amount of pesticides used by farmers.
Some of the proposed regulations came under immediate attack from industry officials. The Chemical Manufacturers Association, for instance, sharply criticized a plan under study to eliminate industrial uses of chlorine -- a byproduct of paper and plastic production.
But reaction from Capitol Hill was positive.
"Reauthorization of this act," said Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, "is essential to continue the progress we have made toward the goal of achieving fishable and swimmable waters."
Mr. Sarbanes has proposed the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act, which is expected to be incorporated into the Clean Water Act later this month. If approved, it would allocate over $20 million in new funds to help clean up the bay. Mr. Sarbanes' legislation also would create a panel to help coordinate work on the Chesapeake by all federal agencies.
Robyn Roberts, coordinator for the Clean Water Network, a private group here, said the plan released yesterday marks "a promising beginning. . . . We're happy the administration and the Senate are moving forward on this."