Conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives asserted their determination to reshape environmental policy with the passage of a Clean Water Act reauthorization bill (HR 961) in mid-May.

The effort, which has been criticized as too extreme by EPA, environmental groups, and some moderate Republicans, marks conservatives' first overhaul of a major environmental law. The bill includes a number of provisions that would ease compliance for businesses and make it harder for EPA to pass future stringent water quality standards.

One major change for industrial sources involves the storm water permitting program. The House bill replaces this with a requirement for facilities to develop pollution prevention plans. The task of determining what those plans should include would be left up to the states.

Under the proposed legislation, the regulated community would also gain more flexibility in meeting other clean water permit requirements. The provisions also call for EPA to conduct and publish a more stringent risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis before issuing any new regulation or guidance that would impose annual costs of $25 million or more. In addition, the bill creates a new definition for wetlands that critics say will reduce the nation's protected wetlands areas.

The House measure faces an uphill battle. President Clinton has promised to veto any clean water legislation similar to this bill. And the Senate, which has not yet begun considering Clean Water Act reauthorization, is not likely to approve anything as stringent as the House version. Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), who heads the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and has been praised by environmental groups, has offered strong support for the current law and considers revisions a low priority.