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Epa scraps changes to clean water act { December 17 2003 }

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EPA Scraps Changes To Clean Water Act
Plans Would Have Reduced Protection

By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2003; Page A20

The Bush administration yesterday abandoned plans for regulatory changes that would have sharply reduced the number of federally protected streams and wetlands, in response to strong opposition from environmentalists, sportsmen, lawmakers and state officials.

President Bush made the decision after the government received more than 133,000 comments opposing efforts to narrow the Clean Water Act's scope to effectively strip millions of acres of wetlands and waterways from federal protection and leave them vulnerable to being filled in by developers.

EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt, who announced the decision in a conference call from Atlanta, said it reaffirms the administration's commitment to "no net loss" of wetlands in the United States. The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers jointly declared that they would not issue a new rule on federal regulatory jurisdiction over isolated wetlands. That reverses a September 2002 decision to consider new rules based on an interpretation of a 2001 Supreme Court ruling.

"Today we are reaffirming and bolstering protections for wetlands, which are vital for water quality, the health of our streams and wildlife habitat," Leavitt said. Assistant Secretary of the Army John Paul Woodley Jr. said, "We will continue our efforts to ensure that the Corps' regulatory program is as effective, efficient and responsive as it can be."

The decision caught many of Bush's critics by surprise. It came on the heels of recent reports that the administration was circulating a draft document proposing to remove federal pollution protection from "ephemeral washes or streams" that do not have groundwater as a source.

"I have to admit this was a real positive development and a win for wetlands and wildlife," said Julie Sibbing of the National Wildlife Federation. Daniel Rosenberg of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the administration "saw the writing on the wall and decided that weakening the Clean Water Act could not withstand public scrutiny."

While praising the administration for scrapping its rulemaking, some environmentalists said they remain concerned that the EPA and Army Corps have not withdrawn a directive issued to their staffs in January, which if fully implemented could result in withdrawing federal protection from as many as 20 million acres of wetlands.

"In order to fully enforce the Clean Water Act and protect all waters, the Bush administration must not only stop the proposed rulemaking, but must rescind the guidance policy," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice.

There are about 100 million acres of wetlands in the lower 48 states and 160 million acres in Alaska, according to government estimates.

The administration began considering significant changes to federal protection of wetlands after a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that limited federal jurisdiction over isolated, non-navigable, intrastate waters and wetlands. The 5 to 4 court ruling involved a challenge to federal clean-water jurisdiction over isolated ponds in Illinois. Although the ponds served as a migratory bird habitat, they were non-navigable and isolated from the tributary systems regulated by the act.

The court held that the Army Corps had exceeded its authority in asserting jurisdiction over the ponds based on their status as a migratory bird habitat.

Some lawmakers, developers and homebuilding industry officials pressed the administration to redefine protected and unprotected waterways and wetlands. But the public and congressional response to those efforts was overwhelmingly negative.

G. Tracy Mehan III, assistant EPA administrator for the office of water, noted that many recent lower court rulings have favored maintaining federal protections for wetlands.

"We are reading the [Supreme Court ruling] narrowly," he said, "and right now we see no compelling reason to go forward with a rule."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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