Congress tackles environmental agenda

Congress this year may harvest a bountiful crop of environmental legislation. Long-stuck bills dealing with wilderness areas, toxic waste, and clean water are likely to become law before fall.

''No major piece of environmental legislation has passed since 1980,'' notes Jeff Conly, project officer of the National Environmental Development Association. ''There's a lot of pressure from all sides to move this stuff.''

To be sure, some major environmental initiatives are still as stuck as a cat in a tree. Congress is doing its best to ignore the expired Clean Air Act and the issue of acid rain. Last week, a House committee vote in effect guaranteed that acid rain controls won't be considered until after November.

But in this election year when Capitol Hill is both underworked and overpoliticized, it is something of a surprise that any environmental bills are moving at all, observers say.

Environmental politics, after all, are particularly complicated. They are both partisan and regional. Some of Congress's epic environmental battles of recent years, for instance, have pitted House Energy and Commerce chairman John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who sometimes supports industry positions, against California Democrats who side with environmentalists.

Probably the most spectacular breakout of environmental legislation involves designation of wilderness areas.

Since 1979, Congress has been examining pristine national forest land, state by state, to decide what parcels should be permanently protected from development as official ''wilderness.'' For the last three years, however, this work has been held up while the Senate and House fought over what should happen to the land that doesn't get the wilderness tag.

Then last week the House and Senate committees involved suddenly settled their feud. They agreed that forest land not named wilderness can be again considered for protection in 10 years, though in the meantime it need not be managed as a pristine area.

The way is now clear for quick passage of bills that would establish more than 3 million acres of wilderness in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, and Arkansas.

''We're very pleased. This takes away the hurdle that was holding things up, '' Charles Clusen, Wilderness Society deputy director of conservation, says.

Moderate Republican senators from Oregon and Washington forced the compromise. They were fed up with the delay, according to congressional sources, and wanted wilderness established in their environmentally conscious states before the November elections.

Congress also appears ready to refurbish the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the main United States law governing transportation and disposal of hazardous waste.

Front-page news stories about Times Beach, dioxin, and EDB have made legislators quite sensitive to the issue of hazardous waste.

Last fall, the House voted to renew and tighten RCRA, in an effort to catch more hazardous substances before they are released into the environment. A similar bill has been stalled in the Senate, waiting its chance to squeeze onto the floor for a vote.

''For two months, it's been 'tomorrow we'll bring it up,' '' a congressional aide who helped draft the bill complains.

But with school-prayer and deficit-reduction votes out of the way, action now seems imminent. The committee aide says the Senate should vote on RCRA late this week, or early next.

If it finally passes muster on Capitol Hill, the new RCRA will regulate for the first time those companies that produce small quantities of hazardous waste. It is also likely to stiffen design requirements for hazardous-waste landfills.

Water is the third major environmental issue Congress will probably complete work on this summer. The Clean Water Act expired two years ago (''It's been dead in the water quite some time,'' jokes Larry Williams, a Sierra Club lobbyist), and legislators have been struggling ever since to reauthorize it.

The Senate is biding its time, waiting to see movement in the House before voting on its version of a modern Clean Water Act. And representatives are, indeed, starting to move: A House panel is scheduled to vote on the Clean Water Act Thursday.

''Was there ever any doubt we'd get a clean water bill this year?'' asks a House committee aide, with an air of nonchalance.

Nonpoint pollution - runoff from farms, construction sites, and city streets - is the most controversial aspect of the clean water issue.

The Senate bill would require states to submit to EPA plans for controlling such liquid pollution. The House version is less strict on the matter.

Thus environmentalists, when it comes to clean water, are in the somewhat unusual position of supporting the efforts of the Republican-dominated Senate, and opposing the Democratic House.

''We'd like them to move first in the Senate,'' says the Sierra Club's Larry Williams.

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