US EPA suspends water pollution rule

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Whitman has filed a motion in the District of Columbia Circuit Court to temporarily suspend lawsuits regarding the framework of the 1972 Clean Water Act and aims to restore contaminated waters.

The suspension of the application of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) rule, which involves a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive whilst still meeting water quality standards, for 18 months follows recent criticism from the National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS’) National Research Council (see related story). Whitman also referred to the fact that the TMDL rule has been challenged in the courts by numerous parties since its introduction in July 2000 (see related story). Congress had also prohibited EPA from putting the rule into effect by denying funds.

“We have an existing TMDL programme and this review will not stop ongoing implementation of that programme, development of water quality standards, issuance of permits to control discharges, or enforcement against violators,” Whitman commented. “EPA and states will continue to co-operate to identify impaired waters and set protective standards for those waters. I am asking for this additional time to listen carefully to all parties with a stake in restoring America’s waters – states, cities, small towns and rural communities, plus industry, the environmental community and farmers-to find a better way to finish the important job of cleaning our great rivers, lakes and streams.”

More than 20,000 bodies of water across America have been identified as polluted, comprising more than 300,000 river and shoreline miles and five million acres of lakes. EPA estimates that more than 40,000 TMDLs must be established. “In order to ensure that this nation’s bodies of water are cleaned up, we need an effective national programme that involves the active participation and support of all levels of government and local communities,” Whitman said. “Unfortunately, many have said the rule designed to implement the TMDL programme falls short of achieving the goals.”

Whitman emphasised that recommendations made by the NAS would be studied and that over the next few months the Agency will conduct a stakeholder process and intends to propose necessary changes by Spring 2002, hoping to adopt such changes within the 18-month time frame.

However, the environmental legal NGO, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, merely views the move as “another example of the Bush team trying to use backdoor tactics to derail important environmental protections in the United States”. “The Bush administration is setting in motion a process designed not only to delay but also to weaken the TMDL programme – the Clean Water Act’s primary tool for cleaning up polluted lakes, beaches, rivers, and streams,” said Mike Lozeau, staff attorney at Earthjustice’s Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School. “The Bush administration has now aimed an arrow at the heart of one of the Clean Water Act’s most important provisions.”

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