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New Churn Across America Over River Renewal

'Heritage river' plan and new regulations collide with property rights and hog farms.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 1998


Rivers typically evoke an image of stolid inevitability, interrupted only occasionally by joyful, dashing exuberance. But around the country today, these symbols of placid continuity have come up against political boulders and economic logjams.

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Conservationists warn that despite long-standing protection efforts, these arteries of commerce and recreation increasingly are impacted by development and overuse.

The Clinton administration wants to expand federal help in river protection by designating "American heritage rivers." Many state and local officials like the idea and are taking part in the new initiative, designed to focus resources and attention on river renewal.

But many others around the country see this as a direct attack on local control and a threat to private property rights.

"Who knows what would happen if a new federal river authority began to impose new rules - with taxpayer-money bribes - on the rivers of our nation?" asks Lee Anderson, editor and publisher of The Chattanooga Free Press. "Do we want people along the Tennessee River, and other rivers that might be designated American Heritage Rivers, to have property rights infringed?"

Manure mountains

Farmers are particularly concerned. Because of recent problems with toxic algae blooms in Maryland and elsewhere, agricultural-waste runoff has become the new focus for government regulation and cleanup legislation.

The US Environmental Protection Agency last month proposed new pollution standards for the largest cattle, hog, and poultry businesses in the country. Noting that most rivers cross state lines, a panel of state and local officials last week urged Senate Agriculture Committee members to approve such federal controls.

In its annual report on the 20 "most endangered rivers," the conservation group American Rivers this week hit hard at "agricultural pollution and overuse."

"Almost half a million animal factory farms are producing 130 times the amount of waste of the human population," says Rebecca Wodder, the group's president.

"But unlike human waste," she says, "these mountains of hog and chicken manure remain untreated and are either stored in unregulated facilities that leak or spill waste into groundwater or rivers, or spread directly on farm fields as fertilizer only to run off in large quantities when it rains, contaminating the water."

"Waste from one of these factory operations is equal to that of a medium-sized city - a city with no sewage treatment plant," she adds.

Among other activities threatening rivers, the group reported, are gold and copper mines, municipal sewage overflows, and radioactive waste contamination.

Another research and advocacy group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, this week reported that the instances of possible fish contamination in US rivers and lakes due to pollution had increased by more than 70 percent between 1993 and 1996.

Using "state fish advisories" collected by the EPA, the NRDC warned that "despite some progress, current government efforts to manage the threat of contaminated fish leave the public inadequately protected."