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By Definition, Our Water’s Cleaner Now

Tue., May 23, 1995, midnight

Q: Congressman Leghorn, the House has just passed a farreaching cleanwater bill. Can you tell us why?

LEGHORN: Every child has a right to drink and swim in sparkling-clean water. Personally, I am deeply committed to clean water, for adults as well as children, and I don’t care how controversial that sounds.

Q: We all admire that kind of courage, Congressman, but doesn’t the bill, in fact, allow dirtier water, much more toxic discharges and much higher bacteria counts?

A: That, too. Sparkle can only take you so far. Politics are about balance, about listening carefully to the swimmers and water-drinkers but also to the developers, oil companies, lobbyists and high-bacteria advocates as well. We’re all in this together.

Q: I get it. But I wasn’t aware that bacteria have their own advocacy group. What are those advocates saying these days?

A: That the taxpayers don’t want to wipe out every coliform bacterium any more than they want to remove every last toxic chemical - it’s just too expensive and compulsive. We can live with these bacteria. They’re our fellow creatures - part of our environment.

Q: So we shouldn’t worry about the rising number of beach closings and warnings due to high bacteria counts? In California, those closures and warnings more than doubled in 1993 to 1,400 for the year, mostly because of contamination by human and animal sewage and river runoff. Under your bill, discharges that have been defined as unacceptably dangerous would be redefined as clean enough.

A: Exactly. And with the new definition comes new peace of mind. Instead of failing by the old standard, we’re succeeding by a new one. I think the American people admire success like that.

Q: I see that you offer the same kind of success with wetlands, defining a lot of them out of existence so they can be filled in at any time. The Association of State Wetland Managers says your bill would exclude 60 percent to 80 percent of our wetlands from protection and allow them to be filled in - even parts of Florida’s Everglades. A lot of the small prairie wetlands used by migrating birds seem vulnerable. Are we going to expel all the ducks and pave the place?

A: We all agree with former President Bush that there should be no net loss of wetlands. That’s a given. But if more than half of these properties never really were wetlands at all, losing them really isn’t a loss, is it?

Q: Nice move. But more than half of America’s original wetlands are gone - and with them, their function of filtering our water, buffering storms and incubating marine life. In California, 91 percent have been filled or dredged. Along the Gulf of Mexico, up to 35 square miles of coastal wetlands are being lost every year. In Louisiana alone, an area of coastal wetlands the size of a football field disappears every 15 minutes. Fishermen are suffering from the disruption of oyster and shrimp beds. Aren’t you concerned?

A: Of course, we’re concerned. But one person’s concern doesn’t mean he gets to control another person’s property. If you want people to use their property for the common good, pay them.

Q: I notice you covered that. Most of us would say that if you buy a wetland, you’re responsible to maintain it as a wetland. But your bill says you will receive a payoff if any part of a parcel of property goes down in value 20 percent or more because of federal wetland regulations. All an owner has to do is say that he intended to build a shopping mall and stick out his hand for a subsidy. Then he can sell the parcel to somebody else who can stick out his hand and say he wanted to build a motel but the feds won’t let him. Isn’t this a permanent entitlement program for wetland owners, something like farm price supports?

A: A few House members voted against the bill on those grounds. But if you think our bill is bad, look at Bob Dole’s and Phil Gramm’s bill in the Senate: Any alteration of property to comply with federal regulations may be eligible for compensation - even widening a door for a wheelchair user to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Q: Congressman, your bill went through awfully fast. Did you get a chance to read it?

A: Many of us read several sections or had them described to us. I myself was briefed fully by a corporate enviro-developmentalist whom I met during my campaign. He told me a hilarious joke about Al Gore, Donna Shalala and a tree. It seems Gore had to hug either the tree or Shalala and …

Q: Congressman, say good night.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Leo Universal Press Syndicate

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