In case of nuclear attack, who's going to worry about whether or not the country's water is clean?

The Environmental Protection Agency insists that the law isn't clear on that point, and is using the issue as a basis for explaining changes it has proposed in the Clean Water Act.

In a July 1 memo that EPA Assistant Administrator Frederic A. Eidsness sent to regional administrators, he wrote: "The present provisions of the Clean Water Act are not flexible enough to address the potentially rapid shifts in pollutant loadings that would be experienced as a result of war, national emergency, armed forces mobilization or major rearmament. . . ."

As a result, Eidsness wrote, EPA wants Congress to pass an amendment that would allow the president for the first time to exempt toxic pollutants and new sources of water pollution from the provisions of the Clean Water Act if "it is in the paramount interest of the United States." EPA also wants to extend the length of time it can grant an extension from one to three years and to extend special Defense Department exemptions to some Energy Department facilities.

James T. Banks, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the provisions were "unnecessary." Banks said in times of war or national emergency the president already has the authority to suspend the Clean Water Act. He added that the emergency rationale does not justify an additional two years' exemption.

Banks added that the phrase "paramount interest" is vague: "Who knows what it means" and when the president would use it.