EPA Issues Non-Point Source Bill in Defiance of Congress

Michael Johnsen

July 12, 2000

As reported on June 14, 2000 (http://home.earthlink.net/~mjohnsen/Environment/epa_cwa.html), the EPA, in its efforts to control non-point sources of water pollution, excepted logging and certain forestry industries from complying with the rule. Environmentalists blasted the EPA, already under heat from industry and Congress, for providing the and exception which can contribute significant damage to important salmon and trout habitat streams across the country.

Now the EPA is once again under fire, this time from Congress. Carol Browner, head of the EPA, issued rules yesterday that will require states to control the pollution runoff into thousands of lakes and rivers. Some argue this is the last great threat remaining to America's waterways.

Last month, Republicans slipped language into an emergency spending package that includes money for the administration's anti-drug efforts in Colombia barring the administration from issuing a final rule on regulating non-point sources of marine pollution, or enforcing it, for the current and upcoming fiscal year. Although the GOP spearheaded the effort, some Democratic lawmakers were among those supporting at least delaying the regulations.

"All of this is no more than a political power grab by the people who are running the EPA," said Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), adding he did not think there was any sound scientific reason for the regulations..

Clinton called the EPA action a "critical, common-sense step" to clean up the nation's waterways. But House and Senate members, including several Democrats, complained that the administration was only trying to leave a Clinton environmental legacy.

The new rules follow a 1998 EPA assessment that found runoff from agricultural lands and urban areas has made approximately 40 percent of the nation's waterways unacceptable for fishing and swimming. About 291,000 miles of rivers and streams do not meet water quality standards because of bacteria, siltation, metals and nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, used in agriculture. The new regulations will require states to make comprehensive pollution surveys of more than 40,000 bodies of water over the next 15 years. They will have to produce their first lists of polluted lakes and rivers in April 2002 and subsequently develop plans to clean them up. But the Congress has blocked EPA's ability to fund the enforcement or implementation of the rules until at least October, 2001. Congress would have to take new action to stop the program from going into effect at that point, but has threatened to gut the regulations by adding provisions to pending legislation that would permanently exempt farming, poultry and timber operations from the standards.

The Washington Post reports that Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) called the EPA move "a slap in the face of the policymaking body of this country," while U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue saw it as the first in a series of moves by the administration to sidestep Congress in the final months.

"The executive branch should not circumvent decisions by the Congress unless the president personally vetoes a law," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.). "Congress on a bipartisan basis expects that the law is the law."

Not suprisingly, small businesses, the utility industry, and major Midwest farming interests (all large special interests) also fear their operations and profits will be affected by tougher water quality standards. On July 6, the National Governors' Association sent a letter to President Clinton asking him not to implement the rule, citing concerns that states might have to spend $1 billion to $2 billion to complete their water pollution surveys reports the Washington Post.

Environmental organizations support the legislative move, though some feel the timeline for implementation is too long. Natural Resources Defense Council (which had shown initial concern about the legislation) attorney Daniel Rosenberg call the plan a sound one. "It's been 28 years since the Clean Water Act was passed. We need to get going on this," he said. It will take almost as long for the regulations announced yesterday to take place; states will have 15 years to draw up cleanup plans, and an additional 5 years to put them in place "if practicable" says the EPA.

"It puts off for a generation the clean water that was due a generation ago," said Joan Mulhern, a lobbyist with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.