EPA Floats New Program To Save America's Rivers

This week the US agency initiates a new tactic in Massachusetts - encouraging polluters to come clean.

Ask most Bostonians about the Charles River and they'll proudly tell you of the aquatic gem that's a centerpiece of city activity - from crew teams plying its waters at dawn, to runners, in-line skaters, and dog-walkers streaming along its banks.

But ask if they'd ever swim in it, and you're likely to get a raised eyebrow and a crooked look. For most people, the once-fetid river has become clean enough to play on or near - but not in.

Using a new cleanup strategy unveiled this week, however, the US Environmental Protection Agency hopes that Boston residents will be swimming and fishing in the Charles by 2005. The plan is the first of its kind in the country - but it's also evidence of a fundamental shift in the way America's environmental watchdog does its job.

The new strategy is to work with groups that pollute the Charles, "not ambush them," says Bill Walsh-Rogalski, spokes-man for the agency's Northeast office.

The plan is a simple carrot-and-stick approach: This week, the EPA sent letters to 200 probable polluters of the Charles - auto-body shops, golf courses, universities, and the like. The letters explain that they have until May 1 to fix sources of illegal pollution, such as leaky underground oil tanks or faulty storm drains.

Until then, the EPA will help them fix the problems, no questions asked. But after that, the groups face a team of prying inspectors and steely lawyers who pledge to slap offenders with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Traditionally, the EPA has conducted surprise inspections and hauled offenders into court, which often led to big legal battles. The new tactic encourages polluters to come clean on their own - and get help.

Across the US in the past five years, "it's become pretty clear that totally legalistic approaches weren't working - and that we had to start looking toward cooperative approaches," says Michael Baram, a Boston University law professor. The "confrontation approach" used for 20 years isn't efficient, he says. It takes too many inspectors to ferret out pollution and too many lawyers to take offenders to court.

Mr. Baram also attributes the new strategy to the "please everyone" attitude of the Clinton administration. Taking on businesses is the political equivalent of "stirring up a hornet's nest," he says. And the EPA is trying to avoid that.

In Boston, the plan gets hearty approval from environmental groups - and grudging support from potential polluters.

"It's a stroke of genius," says Robert Russell of the Conservation Law Foundation. The local EPA chief recently beefed up his enforcement department, which "gives him a big stick and means he can afford to give amnesty," Mr. Russell says. Polluters know that if they don't cooperate voluntarily, they'll get hammered.

Harvard University, perched along the Cambridge side of the Charles, may be one of the 200 organizations that got an EPA letter. (The list hasn't been made public, and Harvard isn't confirming.) Officials are scurrying to keep research students from pouring mercury and other toxic substances down laboratory drains and to ensure that decades-old underground tanks don't leak. The fact that the EPA has set a deadline "helps us focus our efforts," says Joe Griffin, Harvard's environmental safety director, sounding a bit daunted.

But for Bostonians, the efforts at Harvard and elsewhere are good news. "After a long day at work, I'm always glad I can come out here," says Mike Dawson, as he walked Bo, his blue-tick coon hound, along the river. While he wouldn't jump in the river now, the native New Yorker grew up swimming in the Hudson, and he says can't wait to dunk himself in the Charles.

10 Most Endangered Rivers in America

Rivers make the list for any number of reasons, including habitat loss, ship traffic, or plans to build a dam. The environmental group American Rivers revises the list each year.

1. Missouri River

2. Upper Hudson River (New York)

3. White Salmon River (Washington)

4. San Joaquin River (California)

5. Wolf River (Wisconsin)

6. Pinto Creek (Arizona)

7. Potomac River

8. Mill Creek (Ohio)

9. Lower Colorado River

10. Tennessee River

Source: American Rivers, Washington, 1997.

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