The Environmental Protection Agency will release guidelines today detailing the pollution rules the agency wants states to impose on factory farms as part of the Clinton administration's broad campaign for stricter water protection standards.

But even before the proposal went out for public inspection, environmentalists briefed on the plan pronounced it a failure, deriding the agency for handing states too much discretion in setting the details. They particularly criticized the EPA's reliance on pollution standards drafted by the Department of Agriculture.

"It's a real disappointment," said Robbin Marks, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based advocacy group. "It's failing to live up to the promise that the administration made to start solving pollution from factory farms."

EPA officials portrayed their guidelines as a significant step toward stemming the waste washing off farms and out of storage lagoons at the nation's industrial hog, dairy and poultry operations. As the guidelines make clear, large livestock producers would be required to obtain pollution permits from state environmental agencies.

Those permits must require that factory farms safely dispose of manure, lest it wash into water, while taking steps to prevent stored waste from leaking. But what steps precisely--how much manure farms can dispose across soils, or hold in sheds and lagoons-- would be left to state agencies to decide.

"It is certainly up to the states as to what are the specific conditions they put into a permit, but they will have an obligation to ensure that those permits protect water quality," said J. Charles Fox, EPA assistant administrator for water. "This is a very strong step forward."

The draft document delivers the fine print on a farm pollution strategy outlined in March by Vice President Gore, which is aimed at extending the federal Clean Water Act to the mountains of manure accumulating across the country.

For two decades, federal authorities concentrated largely on factory pipes and wastewater treatment plants as the primary culprits of water pollution. But in recent years the focus has shifted to subtler, less direct forms of pollution--from fertilizers washing off suburban lawns to the manure slathered and sprayed across fields as fertilizer.

Indeed, the nation's farms have come to be seen as an important source of water pollution. In Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, relentless growth has propelled the poultry industry into the primary source of pollution reaching key portions of the Chesapeake and other bays.

Manure is rich in phosphorus and nitrogen--basic components of the food chain that nurture a host of environmental afflictions when they reach water in too much abundance.

Only about 2,000 livestock operations in the country are governed by pollution permits, according to the EPA. The guidelines are aimed at bringing 18,000 more under the regulatory umbrella--mostly large hog and dairy operations. The other 430,000 livestock farms, including most poultry houses, will not be required to obtain permits, unless individual states opt to force them to do so.

Some states--Maryland and Virginia among them--have already taken action, adopting laws that will eventually force farmers to test soils and then apply no more manure as fertilizer than crops can absorb. The new rules have landed amid warnings that they may drive livestock operations to move to states with fewer regulations. The federal farm pollution strategy was aimed at setting a national standard, eliminating the incentive for factory farms to shop for more lenient jurisdictions.

"Whatever comes out, it needs to level the playing field among all the states," said Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

But environmentalists say the new guidelines fail on that front, because states are free to decide the details.

Ken Midkiff, coordinator of the Sierra Club's clean water campaign, said some states have already forced large livestock farms to obtain pollution permits but have imposed no limits on how much waste they can send into water.

"They're really just permits to pollute," Midkiff said, adding that the guidelines wouldn't stop other states from taking the same approach.

The Agriculture Department's role in setting pollution standards drew particular ire. Environmentalists say the agency is not oriented toward stopping pollution. While the USDA is well-suited to helping small farmers make safe use of manure as fertilizer, many hog and dairy operations are producing so much manure that it amounts to an industrial waste problem, which ought to be supervised as such, they say.

"USDA is not a regulatory agency," said Michelle Nowlin, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, an advocacy group in Chapel Hill, N.C. "I don't think it is appropriate to vest them with a regulatory role."

Despite the criticism, the EPA's Fox said the guidelines are a significant tool, establishing a minimum framework states must use as they write permits for their largest livestock producers. And if states fail to protect waterways, he added, they will be liable to lawsuits from citizens or to intervention by the EPA.

The EPA plans to gather public comment through October and release final guidelines before the end of the year.

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