Washington Despite an act just passed by Congress that expressly forbids it, the Clinton administration has found a way to impose tough new rules to clean up waterways polluted by runoff from farms, forests and cities.
The secret: President Clinton has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to rush the rules to completion before the July 13 deadline for his signature making the bill a law. Involved is a type of runoff that the administration says pollutes 20,000 U.S. rivers, lakes and bays.
If Republicans complain, experts say, they'll only be affirming the administration's and presidential candidate Al Gore's environmental credentials.
Congress laid down the first card in this particular political poker game, writing the prohibition as an unrelated measure, called a rider, into a $20 billion emergency military spending bill that passed Friday.
Clinton responded by ordering EPA regulation writers to work overtime, White House spokes-man Jake Siewert confirmed for Knight Ridder late Wednesday.
"We're trying to render the rider meaningless. We're trying to finalize the rule, and we're trying to do it as quickly as possible," Siewert said by phone from New York, where he was traveling with the president.
Recognizing that regulation of companies that dumped effluent directly into waterways was already tight, the idea was to curb pollution that gets into water more indirectly, through runoff from storm sewers, suburban lawn chemicals, farms and the timber industry.
In August 1999, Clinton announced that the EPA would clamp down on such runoff. The mechanism was a rule called Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), instructing states to set limits on how much contamination would be tolerated in each waterway and how much pollution reduction would be demanded from factories, sewage treatment plants, farms and sources of urban runoff.
"We're taking new action to ensure that every river, lake and bay in America is clean and safe," Clinton said last August. "The EPA will work in partnership with states to assess the state of all our waterways to identify the most polluted waters and to develop strong enforceable plans to restore them to health."
The proposal ran into heavy criticism from timber, agriculture and manufacturing officials, all of whom said it was unnecessary.
With what they called bipartisan support, Sens. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., inserted language into the military appropriations bill barring the use of federal money to pay for any new regulation on nonpoint source pollution.
"This language will put the brakes on the EPA's plans to force Arkansans to comply with the unnecessary and extremely harsh regulations proposed," Hutchinson said Friday in a news release.
The key word in the rider was "new." The president has until July 13 to sign the military spending bill, so if the EPA can complete the nearly finished rules pronto, the prohibition will be meaningless.