A House committee approved a sweeping revision of the federal Clean Water Act yesterday that critics said would sacrifice most of the nation's wetlands, undermine the Chesapeake Bay cleanup and ease pollution restrictions on communities, farms and factories.
Environmentalists accused the Republican-controlled House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of trying to scuttle a 23-year-old law that both political parties agree has worked well in cleaning up the nation's waterways.
But Pennsylvania Rep. Bud Shuster, the panel's chairman, insisted that the bill does not endanger clean water. Instead, the measure injects "common sense" and "flexibility" into a law that has grown too rigid and costly, he said.
The 296-page bill was overwhelmingly approved, on a vote of 42-16, at the end of a three-day review during which outnumbered Democrats and some Republicans tried unsuccessfully to alter the measure.
Though the bill would continue annual funding of about $21 million a year toward the Chesapeake Bay restoration, Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest was one of three Republicans who voted against the legislation after he failed to retain wetlands protections.
"A majority of the wetlands we now have in the United States" would become vulnerable, said Mr. Gilchrest, whose district straddles the bay, from the wetlands-rich Eastern Shore to South Baltimore. He called the measure "totally arbitrary" and "not based on good science."
Those charges were echoed by environmental groups and by the Clinton administration. Ann Powers, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, contended that the "drier" wetlands likely to lose protection help filter out the nutrients that are polluting the bay.
Robert Perciasepe, assistant Environmental Protection Agency administrator and former Maryland environment secretary, said the bill was "a wholesale repeal and replacement" of the law's core, which he said would be "bad for the environment, the economy and the American people."
But the measure was hailed by spokesmen for farmers, home builders, business and industry, as well as advocates of property rights. "This represents an attempt to bring some common sense into the equation," said Margaret Ann Reigle, chairman of the Fairness to Land Owners Committee, based in Cambridge, Md.
The bill is slated for a full House vote later this spring. Similar legislation has yet to be introduced in the Senate.
Major changes proposed in the House bill include:
* Narrowing the definition of what is a wetland and authorizing regulators to bar development only on the most valuable acreage. The Interior Department warned that this would remove protection from up to 80 percent of the nation's 105 million acres of wetlands, including large parts of Florida's Everglades and the Great Dismal Swamp, which straddles the Virginia-North Carolina border.
* Repeal of a requirement that coastal states such as Maryland adopt enforceable controls on polluted runoff from farm fields and city and suburban streets, the source of most pollution tainting the nation's waters today. Instead, states must devise plans for reducing runoff that rely mainly on voluntary actions and incentives, and they have 15 years to demonstrate "reasonable progress" toward cleaning up streams -- longer if the federal government does not provide all promised funds.
* Repeal of federal requirements that thousands of municipalities, industries and businesses get permits for discharging storm water into streams, a program that even EPA officials acknowledge has been unnecessarily costly and cumbersome.
* Allowing coastal communities to avoid spending more on wastewater treatment if they discharge the sewage into the ocean at least a mile offshore.
* Requiring the EPA to review all of its limits on water discharges of toxic pollutants within five years and to adopt cleanup standards that are "reasonably related" to the anticipated benefits of purer streams and lakes.
The bill would authorize an increase of $1 billion in the $2 billion a year distributed to states for upgrading sewage treatment plants and allow the money to be spent for a broad range of pollution controls, including farm and urban storm water runoff. But environmentalists questioned whether a Congress bent on balancing the federal budget would appropriate additional money for pollution control, and they pointed out that the bill extends cleanup deadlines if full federal funding is not forthcoming.