EPA may end protection for some waterways


WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is on the verge of exempting more than one-third of the nation's waterways from federal rules that protect them from pollution, according to environmental and business activists.

Isolated wetlands and smaller streams that occasionally go dry would no longer get protection under the 30-year-old Clean Water Act because the administration is planning to change the definition of protected waterways, many activists say. The Environmental Protection Agency would not comment.

The waters to be left unprotected "are crucial to the quality of larger waterways," said Bob Perciasepe, a former water-regulatory chief in the Clinton administration and current senior vice president of the National Audubon Society.

Environmentalists say the administration's expected proposals would allow between 35 percent and 60 percent of the nation's waterways to be polluted, or even filled in, without federal intervention. Agriculture and real estate interests say that states would continue to regulate these waterways but concede that state rules are generally less burdensome.

Some say that the Bush administration is right in limiting definitions of waterways. Jerry Taylor, natural resources director of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said: "The assertion that every little wet spot in the ground is some ecological crown jewel is simply nonsense."

Even as EPA weighs its rules changes, expected any day, a U.S. Geological Service study issued yesterday found that the small waterways are more important to the health of the nation's water system than previously recognized.

These smaller waters connect more to larger waterways than formerly understood, said David Wolock, who authored the study. Allow pollution into the smaller streams, he said, and it will flow into larger rivers.

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