Two environmental groups are suing the federal government for allowing Kansas officials to ignore key requirements in a federal anti-pollution law.
For years, state and national environmental groups have complained that far too much pollution has flowed into streams and rivers in Kansas with far too little response from government agencies that are supposed to protect those waterways.
But a federal lawsuit filed in October by the Sierra Club and the Kansas Natural Resource Council could force new restrictions on both industrial and agricultural pollution.
The suit claims that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to enforce in Kansas portions of the Clean Water Act, a law passed by Congress in 1972 to protect the public from toxic pollution in rivers, streams and lakes used for swimming, fishing and drinking.
A different law, the Safe Drinking Water Act, specifically protects drinking supplies.
Although the EPA, its administrator, Carol Browner, and its Kansas City, Kan., regional administrator, Dennis Grams, are the named defendants in the lawsuit filed in federal district court in Kansas City, Kan., the real target is the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which is supposed to implement the Clean Water Act in the state.
"The law is clear, but the holdup has been at the state agency level, where, for a wide variety of reasons, the agencies have determined to duck and not enforce the law," said Bill Craven of Stull, the Sierra Club's attorney in the case.
The EPA is supposed to make sure KDHE implements the law correctly, and the lawsuit says EPA has failed to do so.
The suit says that the state of Kansas hasn't established certain required limits for water pollution and that it has failed to make sure pollution remains within such limits. It claims the EPA has illegally allowed the state to get away with these failures.
"I think they felt that it just wasn't that important, and no one pressed them on it," said John Simpson, the Kansas City, Mo., lawyer representing KNRC in the lawsuit.
By KDHE's own estimates, public uses of nearly all of the state's rivers and streams are at least partially limited because of pollution.
A victory in court for the environmental groups could mean new restrictions imposed on industrial and agricultural polluters, including farmers in northeast Kansas who long have opposed any new restrictions on use of the herbicide atrazine, which has been detected in the Kansas River.
KDHE long has insisted that it has no authority to restrict herbicides, which are regulated in Kansas by the state Agriculture Department.
"KDHE has ignored the fact that they have regulatory responsibility for the Clean Water Act," Craven said. "There's a federal law that they implement that requires them to deal with (agricultural) pollution.
"When all the sources of pollution can't exceed the legal limits, Kansas's water quality will improve dramatically."
KDHE is watching the lawsuit closely but declined to comment on its specifics.
"We're not a named party," Greg Crawford, a KDHE representative, said Friday. "We're not going to debate the merits and validity of the claims. We're very interested in the outcome. EPA is the defendant."
EPA offices throughout the country, including in Kansas City, Kan., were closed this week because of the shutdown of the federal government, and no one from the agency could be reached for comment.
The EPA is supposed to respond to the lawsuit later this month, but attorneys for the environmental groups expect that response to be delayed because of the government shutdown.