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Bush pulls the plug on clean water

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Sure, President Clinton didn’t know what the definition of “is” was, but President Bush’s mastery of simple words like “clean” and “water” also leaves plenty to be desired. Under his administration, the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] is now looking at a “reinterpretation” of guidelines that protect seasonally flowing streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act.

The Bush revamp of EPA rules is meant to bring the agency into harmony with a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, says EPA spokesman John Millett.

The Court, in the case of Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County vs. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ruled that the federal government couldn’t be required to protect certain bodies of water simply because they’re pit stops for migratory birds.

The proposed changes would apply only to isolated, non-navigable, intrastate waterways. But don’t breath that sigh of relief yet—some of Montana’s isolated glacial lakes and seasonal streams could be left unshielded from the dirty hands of Montana’s traditionally dirty industries.

“The main worry is that sites that don’t need to be cleaned up now, sites that are pretty good, those sites could be threatened,” says Clark Fork Coalition conservation director and staff attorney Matt Clifford. “For instance, if the Clean Water Act were not to apply to intermittent streams and somebody wanted to build say a power plant, all they would have to do is build a pipe and pipe their discharge to some ‘intermittent stream.’”

The EPA’s Millett says that it isn’t likely seasonal flowing streams would be put in danger, but he also can’t predict how the guidelines will change after the public comment period has ended next month. By some estimates the revision could apply to as much as 20 percent of the nation’s waterways. And according to a Knight Ridder newspaper survey, the Bush administration is already cleaning up 31 percent fewer seriously contaminated sites than President Clinton’s administration did in the same time span, while polluters are paying 64 percent less in fines each month under Bush.

The Clark Fork Coalition’s Clifford says that Montanans should be concerned about the possible changes to the Clean Water Act, because state officials won’t be.

“The only reason we have state water quality laws is because the feds made us enact them as part of the Clean Water Act,” he says. “If the federal requirement were lifted, I don’t doubt for a minute that they would eliminate or reduce the water quality standards.”

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