LEGISLATION: EPA Changes Little Under New Administration

Candidate Bill Clinton labeled the Bush administration's clean air, water and land policies and programs an "environmental disaster." His running mate, then-Sen. Albert Gore Jr., scared a large segment of the business community with pie-in-the-sky environmental notions. However, eight months into this Democratic administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still looks and acts much like it did under Bush ap-pointee William Reilly.

For now, business and industry are cautiously optimistic. After all, they expected the EPA to issue a slew of new rules and regulations even as the inaugural festivities were winding down. Meantime, en-vironmental activists are in a mild funk, having expected EPA chief Carol Browner to be more aggressive.

A comparison of Browner to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is inevitable. Babbitt "lost" a bid for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court because environmentalists and others convinced the White House that he would be more valuable at Interior. For her part, Browner has not made it clear how her agenda differs significantly from that of her predecessor.

The Clinton administration's major environmental actions - limiting timber harvests and signing the Rio biodiversity treaty - did not need (or get) EPA sponsorship. These accomplishments came from efforts by Vice President Gore and officials at the Interior and State departments.

The most important piece of environmental legislation in this session of Congress will probably be the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act. Yet, the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. John Chaffee, R-R.I., contains little contribution from the EPA. Nevertheless, Browner is expected to support many, if not all, aspects of the bill.

Unfortunately, Browner is working under some severe budgetary setbacks and restrictions that she did not create. The EPA is already significantly underfunded for its current responsibilities under an appropriation approved last year by President Bush. Yet, as the agency's duties are growing, its budget is shrinking. The EPA lost more than $900 million for wastewater treatment when the funds were shunted to an ill-fated jobs-stimulus bill.

Nevertheless, Browner has shown decisive and forceful leadership. For one thing, she cut off approvals of new hazardous waste incinerators while her staff assesses the safety of existing units. For another, she successfully threatened California and other states with a cut-off of highway funds if they ignored Clean Air Act requirements.

Some observers are still not sure that she has enough clout within the administration, as well as the management skills within her own agency, to wrestle with truly divisive issues. Others think she'll do just fine after she learns the yin and yang of the agency. And things might improve significantly if the White House finally approves her personnel choices for the major program areas: air, water, solid waste and pesticides.

A number of key members of Congress have been persistently asking Browner about her plans to re-assess the Superfund law. Everybody seems to agree that the program is not producing speedy cleanups at the worst sites. How deftly she handles this task will, in large measure, determine her influence throughout the rest of her tenure.

Other Congressional action may have an effect on the EPA. If Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has his way, the EPA will have an "A" list and "B" list for properties contaminated with hazardous substances.

The "A" list probably will be the National Priorities List (NPL), which represents the EPA's assessment of the worst threats to human health and the environment. The NPL contains about 1,200 facilities and is likely to grow to as many as 4,000 sites. The "B" list would result from the Environmental Justice Act of 1993, which is aimed at cleaning up the 100 most toxic counties in the nation.

The bill would force the EPA to study the total weight of toxic chemicals released nationwide on a county-by-county basis. After the study, the agency's "weight watchers" would target the 100 highest scoring counties, so-called "Environmental High Impact Areas," and review the list every five years.

Under the bill, a "high impact" area would be eligible for additional government assistance. For its part, the Department of Labor would have to inspect toxic chemicals facilities in each area, and such facilities could not change their operations without a special permit. Meantime, the Department of Health and Human Services would assess and publicize health threats in these areas.

The bill has the support of the NAACP, the Sierra Club and other groups. In the House, a companion bill was in-troduced by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.