State water regulation to refocus on quality of lakes and streams

EPA plan is `last chapter' of cleanup started in 1972

August 15, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency will propose this week that states regulate water pollution by focusing on the quality of bodies of water, instead of the levels of discharges from individual plants.

Once a state determines the extent to which pollution must be reduced in a body of water, polluters would receive a quota and could clean up their emissions or buy the right to discharge pollutants into the water from someone whose cleanup had exceeded a quota.

The change, announced yesterday by President Clinton in his weekly radio address, is based on a mostly unused provision of the 1972 Clean Water Act that requires regulators to assess water conditions and issue discharge restrictions accordingly.

Federal and state agencies have generally enforced discharge limits on factories and municipal wastewater treatment plants without measuring the quality of the bodies of water involved.

Regulators have sometimes set limits on pollution by analyzing the body of water, mostly when forced to by lawsuits brought by environmentalists; EPA officials said the new rule would require the states to use that approach.

Clinton said that under the new rule, states would have to establish schedules for cleanup or the federal government would step in and do it for them.

The proposed rule, which will be open for public comment for 60 days, can be examined at http: //www.epa.gov/OWOW/tmdl/ index.html. The agency is also publishing what it says is the first comprehensive state-by-state listing of "impaired" bodies of water, showing the nature of each pollutant.

Carol M. Browner, the EPA administrator, said the new rule would be "the last chapter in how we get to fishable, swimmable waters." Great progress has been made since the Clean Water Act in 1972, she said, but 5 million acres of lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers and shorelines are not fit for fishing or swimming.

Developing the plans could cost the states $1 million to $2 million each, Browner said. She did not estimate the costs to actually reduce pollution.

Environmentalists hailed the rule but said the trick was not only to assess the water, but to force a cleanup. One problem is that much of the pollution comes from unregulated parties, such as small farms, as opposed to factories, power plants and sewage treatment plants.

The success of environmental orders based on bodies of water rather than discharges will depend on the willingness of regulators to follow through, said Mark A. Izeman, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Izeman said that such rules had prevailed before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, but they had not been enforced. And under the Clean Water Act, regulations had been issued to allow such enforcement.

"The rules have resulted in beginnings of programs in some states, including listing of impaired water bodies," Izeman said. "But the program has largely not been implemented."

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