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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Clean Water Act Overhaul

Air Date: Week of

The House of Representatives has passed a rewrite of the Clean Water Act. Some interpret the new bill to include wetlands protection rollbacks and pollution control easements; others see it differently. The bill is now before the Senate, but some Senators feel the law has been too successful to change drastically, and is in need of only a slight tune-up. Lisa Wolfington has this report.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's the US Senate's move in the battle over the Clean Water Act, one of the major laws safeguarding the nation's health and environment. Earlier this spring, the House approved a radical overhaul, to the cheers of supporters who say municipalities, farmers, and industry need more leeway to meet clean water standards. Opponents, led in the Senate by Environment Committee Chair John Chafee of Rhode Island, say they don't think the Clean Water Act is broken, and they're in no hurry to fix it. But as Lisa Wolfington reports from Washington, a new compromise bill introduced by Democratic Senator Bennett Johnston of Louisiana has picked up important backers in both parties and both houses, and may force Senator Chafee to compromise.

WOLFINGTON: The new Senate bill retains parts of the House measure environmentalists object to most strenuously: rolling back wetlands protections and easing pollution controls. But J. Bennett Johnston, a Louisiana Democrat who drafted the measure, has dropped the bill's budget busting takings provision. That would have required the federal government to compensate landowners when regulation changed the value of their property. Johnston's bill has met with the approval of representative Jimmy Hayes, a Democrat also from Louisiana who drafted the House bill. Hayes thinks it will boost the legislation's chances of passing.

HAYES: Well, you have Senator Dole, and you have Trent Blott, who are co-sponsors of what is very close to a companion bill. They do like it. Perhaps America ought to have it put to a vote instead of one person in one committee blocking it.

WOLFINGTON: In both houses, it's been Democrats who introduced the legislation to reform the Act: in effect, carrying water for Conservative Republicans. And even though Hayes's bill passed the House, it did not win approval of everyone in the Republican leadership. New York Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, Chair of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, says the new version of the Clean Water Bill is a retreat from more than 2 decades of remarkable progress in cleaning up the nation's waterways and protecting its wetlands.

BOEHLERT: It just, in my estimation, moves in the wrong direction. The good news is this: we had 185 votes for my position in the house, which strengthens the hand of my ally, Senator John Chafee in the Senate. And if he is not successful in fashioning something that's better than the House bill, then the President can veto it knowing that that veto will be sustained.

WOLFINGTON: In the Senate, Rhode Island's John Chafee is standing firm in his commitment to the Clean Water Act, and applauded President Clinton's recent vow to veto any major changes to it.

CHAFEE: First I want to say the existing law is a pretty good law. It's served this country well. It's resulted in cleaning up our rivers and lakes and streams so that we now have two-thirds of them in the country have obtained the goal of fishable and swimmable. And when you've got a good law like that there's no need to make dramatic changes in it.

WOLFINGTON: Chafee insists that only minor adjustments are needed. He has put the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act at the top of his legislative agenda. But as more and more powerful conservative senators line up behind the new bill, it may become harder for Chafee not to take some action on it. For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Wolfington in Washington.



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