Senator questions EPA push to reform clean water rules

Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Jeffords, I-Vt., raised doubts Wednesday about an upcoming Bush administration proposal to reform Clean Water Act pollution controls, warning the plan could delay decreases in pollution and provide industry with an unwarranted break from Environmental Protection Agency oversight.

The plan "could slow needed progress by additional decades by relaxing schedules for setting [pollution limits], reducing EPA's oversight role, allowing states to reclassify polluted waters as clean and adopting other weakening changes to the current program," Jeffords argued in a letter Wednesday to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

The letter was cosigned by number of Democrats, including Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California.

Since the middle of the Clinton administration, EPA has been struggling to reform its Clean Water Act pollution control program, known as the total maximum daily load, or TMDL, system. Under the act, EPA or authorized states are required to set pollution levels, or "loads," for all bodies of water that have been impaired because of contamination.

Although under the act TMDLs were to be in place for all impaired waters years ago, the size of the program and complexity of setting the standards has severely limited states' ability to comply with existing timetables.

In July 2000, EPA issued revised TMDL rules the agency hoped would speed the setting of limits. But the rule was universally condemned, with industry and states arguing it set the bar far too high, while many environmentalists charged it would weaken federal water quality protections.

Since that time, EPA has continued to struggle with how best to reform the program. Environmentalists and industry officials say EPA is now close to proposing a new round of TMDL reforms that would utilize an emissions trading scheme similar to those used in the air program. The new regulations are also expected to modify rules for removing water bodies from the federal list of impaired waters.

In his letter, Jeffords rejects giving states more leeway in listing waters, arguing, "EPA should insist on the listings requirements of the current rule" and require better data quality collection by states.

Jeffords and his Democratic colleagues also question the effectiveness of the trading proposal. "It is imperative that any water quality trading program actually reduce pollution, not just move it around," they wrote.

Meanwhile, congressional pressure is increasing on EPA to delay completion of the Bush administration's plan to reform the Clean Air Act's new source review program governing emissions from utilities. In a Feb. 12 letter to Whitman, a group of 63 House Democrats called on EPA to extend the public comment period on the reforms, conduct public hearings in EPA's 10 regions and perform a regulatory impact analysis of the rule.

Similarly, Oregon's Senate delegation sent a similar letter to Whitman Feb. 6. In the letter, Sens. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and Gordon Smith, a Republican, asked Whitman to extend the public comment process to ensure citizens have adequate time to review the proposals.