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EPA Issues New Water Pollution Rules to Criticism from Congress

By Dan Morgan and

Juliet Eilperin
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

The Clinton administration, in direct defiance of Congress, Tuesday issued far-reaching environmental rules that will require states to control the pollution runoff into thousands of lakes and river that officials said was “the greatest remaining threat to America’s waters.”

The action by the Environmental Protection Agency 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 would subsequently have to come up with plans to clean them up.

The EPA move circumvents an effort by Congress to block the issue of the new regulations as part of a new spending bill approved in both houses and set to be signed by President Clinton Thursday.

With Tuesday’s action, EPA will still not be able to fund the enforcement or implementation of the rules until at least October, 2001. But Congress can now only stop the sweeping program from going into effect after that by taking some definitive new action of its own.

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 simply trying to cement its environmental legacy in the final months of the administration.

“All of this is no more than a political power grab by the people who are running the EPA,” complained Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark. “They have no sound scientific reason for doing any of these things.”

Sen. Larry 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 predicted it was the first in a series of moves by the administration to sidestep Congress in the final months of the administration.

“The executive branch should not circumvent decisions by the Congress unless the president personally vetoes a law,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla. “Congress on a bipartisan basis expects that the law is the law.” In a reference to EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner, who made Tuesday’s announcement, Young said “an agency head should understand that.”

The controversy over the new water regulations flared last month after late-night negotiations over an emergency spending package that includes money for the administration’s anti-drug efforts in Colombia. Republicans slipped language into the bill barring the administration from issuing a final rule or enforcing it for both the current and upcoming fiscal year. Although the GOP spearheaded the effort, Democratic lawmakers were among those supporting at least delaying the regulations.

Along with opposition to the initiative from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,small business, and the utility industry, major Midwest farming interests, representing a key voting bloc, also fear their operations will be affected by tougher water quality standards. On July 6, the National Governors’ Association sent a letter to 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.