Some would say that it's about time the EPA was knocked off its pedestal, while others believe the EPA has not been assertive enough.

Each year the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) publishes its Environmental Outlook that previews its predictions for the major activities expected to dominant EPA policy and the environmental regulatory agenda. Outlook 2004 was recently published, and it should come as no surprise that the once effective agency, developed in 1970 to protect the environment, has become one of the least respected and influential administrative bodies in the federal government. Some would say that it's about time the EPA was knocked off of their pedestal, while others believe the EPA has not been assertive enough.

As we rapidly begin impinging 2004, the EPA continues its downward spiral. Be prepared to hear about the new ozone and particulate matter designations, but expect gridlock on the issue and more lawsuits. Certainly, we'll continue to hear about air pollution and the defunct and ineffective New Source Review Program within the context of energy generation and global warming. But don't expect anything real interesting to come from it. According to BNA's congressional sources, the prospects for passage of a major air pollution bill in 2004 are remote.

This year, you will continue to hear more about the proposed mercury rule signed by EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt in December 2003. On the surface, the rule predicts to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 70% by 2018. However, neither the state regulatory agencies nor the environmental groups like the market-based initiatives that the rule suggests.

A significant barrier to overcome has to do with the difference in perceived harm from mercury when compared to other market-based pollutants like sulfur dioxide. With sulfur dioxide, we have to deal with issues such as acid rain, stressed fish populations, building and infrastructure damage and defoliation of forests. All of these are concerning, however they are one step removed from direct impact to human health. Mercury, on the other hand, not only causes problems to the environment, but also has been directly linked to human nervous system harm, including brain damage. Normally, when people can directly relate to the causes of environmental contamination, it becomes a political hot potato. Therefore, attempting to negotiate a mercury reduction program using a market-based approach must be done carefully. Therefore, even if the proposed rule passes, the chances it will become effective anytime soon is remote.

What about surface water and drinking water? A word of advice: continue to monitor your fish consumption, check for beach warnings during the swimming seasons and invest in a good home water filtration system.

Our nation's waterways continue to degrade. The existing Clean Water Act is old and dated forcing the EPA to try and work on revising the 1992 Total Maximum Daily Loading (TMDL) program within a 30-year-old Act. The TMDL program is designed to clean-up waters that continue to be impaired after discharge controls have been applied. More than 20,000 waters are listed by states as impaired, and 40,000 TMDLs need to be completed. If it sounds overwhelming, that's because it is. There are significant costs associated with profiling a water body and the development of site-specific health-based criteria to clean it up. Perhaps even more challenging is the process of communicating to a non-scientific community the reasons why one part per million of a contaminant per day entering a river is a problem that requires a solution. This lack of understanding is also the reason why there will be almost no substantial progress made on the TMDL program this year.

The administrative challenges facing the drinking water program are somewhat different than those of surface water. A number of federal rules have already been issued to improve the quality of drinking water. This places pressure on the states to begin implementation of the rules. However, given the fiscal condition of most states, complying with the federal rules will be difficult, slow and maybe even nonexistent.

There will be other programs that you will hear about throughout 2004, including the new diesel standard, the omni-present greenhouse gas initiatives and some changes being made to the hazardous waste program that may actually redefine solid waste to exclude 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste from federal regulation. In addition, the insolvent superfund program is expected to continue to disappear, while EPA's most successful environmental data reporting program, the toxic release inventory, may be getting a new look with the intention of reducing reporting time. All in all, expect lots of talk, lots of litigation and little progress. I'll keep you posted! IH