The Environmental Protection Agency will propose this week that states regulate water pollution by focusing on the quality of bodies of water, instead of the levels of discharges from individual plants.
Once the state determined the extent to which pollution must be reduced in a body of water, the polluters would receive a quota and could then clean up their emissions or buy the right to discharge into the water from someone else whose cleanup had exceeded a quota.
The change, which was announced Saturday morning by President Clinton in his weekly radio address, is based on a mostly unused provision of the 1972 Clean Water Act that requires pollution regulators to assess water conditions and issue discharge restrictions accordingly. Federal and state agencies have generally enforced discharge limits on factories and municipal water treatment plants without measuring the quality of the bodies of water involved.
Environmental regulators have sometimes set limits on pollution by analyzing the body of water, mostly when forced to by lawsuits brought by environmentalists; EPA officials said the new rule would be the first that required the states to act.
Clinton said that under the new rule, states would have to establish schedules for cleanup or the federal government would step in and do it for them.
Just last week, a federal judge in Tallahassee said Florida hasn't enforced the act properly. He ordered the state to begin setting new pollution limits for 700 waterways immediately and start enforcing them.
But the Florida Department of Environmental Protection intends to go to court this week to ask the judge to give the state more time, DEP Secretary David Struhs said Friday.
The proposed federal rule, which will be open for public comment for 60 days, is available at http://www.epa.gov/OWOW/tmdl/index.html. The agency is also publishing what it says is the first comprehensive state-by-state listing of "impaired" bodies of water, which shows the nature of each pollutant.
Carol Browner, the EPA administrator, said the new rule would be "the last chapter in how we get to fishable, swimmable waters." Great progress has been made since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, she said, but 5-million acres of lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers and shorelines are not fit for fishing or swimming.
Developing the plans could cost the states $1-million to $2-million each, Browner said. She did not estimate the costs to actually reduce pollution.
Environmentalists hailed the rule but said the trick was not only to assess the water, but to actually force a cleanup. One problem is that much of the pollution comes from unregulated parties, like small farms, as opposed to factories, power plants and sewage treatment plants.
At the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Susan L. Sylvester, the administrator for water division, said that under existing regulations, "we've done a lot" with discharge pipes from factories and sewage treatment plants. But she said many bodies of water were still polluted by contamination from sources like runoff from farms or parking lots, which are not regulated. Farms are sources of pathogens from animal manure and insecticides used on crops. Farms are also sources of nutrients, which can promote algae and other plant growth in water that kill fish.
But the success of environmental orders based on bodies of water rather than discharges will depend on the willingness of regulators to follow through, said Mark A. Izeman, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.
_ Information from Times files was used in this report.