Environmentalists and regulators agree that ammonia pollution is a problem. The disagreement comes from the plan of attack to clean up the state's water resources.
Two Kansas environmental groups claim that because of special interest groups, state regulators watered down new pollution standards aimed at protecting lakes and streams in northeast Kansas.
They are urging the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reject the standards.
"I think there is an unholy alliance between agricultural interests and a few municipalities around the state who are undermining the whole process," said Lawrence attorney Charles Benjamin, a lobbyist for the Kansas Natural Resource Council and the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club. "I think it's a concerted effort by the Graves administration."
Benjamin sent a letter last week to the EPA's regional office in Kansas City, saying the proposed Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs, for the Lower Republican River Basin fail to address one of the most serious pollution problems in the basin, ammonia flowing from municipal sewage treatment plants.
State regulators say the problem is addressed, but through a different process than the TMDLs. Because most ammonia pollution comes from sewage plants, and because those plants are regulated, state officials say, it is more effective to address the issue by imposing site-specific regulations on each plant that receives a permit from the state to discharge effluent into a river.
"When you look at water quality, you have to look at it from the big picture," said Don Brown, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. "There are a lot of players in all this and you have to look beyond any one system."
According to an April report by KDHE, ammonia was listed as one of the highest-priority pollution problems in the Lower Republican River Basin -- a region that includes the Kansas and Wakarusa rivers as they flow through Douglas County.
The report identified 12 river and stream segments that were "impaired" because of ammonia. Among them were the Kansas River at Lawrence and the upper segment of the Wakarusa River.
The TMDL standards sent to the EPA do not address the ammonia problem.
Instead, said Tom Stiles, chief of planning and prevention at KDHE, the state chose to deal with the ammonia problem through the permitting process for sewage treatment plants.
"We don't debate (the environmental groups) about the impairment," Stiles said. "We just debate the mechanism for dealing with the impairment."
According to Benjamin, that decision was a direct result of lobbying efforts by cities and agribusiness groups that began in 1997, when the state was about to adopt new statewide water quality standards.
In 1997, KDHE had proposed issuing new statewide water quality standards that would have imposed strict new limits, not only on ammonia and other pollutants coming from municipal sewage plants, but also on atrazine and other pollutants that run off farm fields and feedlots.
Municipal governments, including Johnson County and the city of Topeka, said the ammonia standards that were being proposed at that time would have forced them to spend tens of millions of dollars upgrading their treatment plants to remove ammonia from the effluent.
Topeka estimated its cost would be more than $15 million for the project, while Johnson County pegged its cost around $80 million.
Meanwhile, farm groups such as Kansas Farm Bureau objected to proposed new standards on atrazine -- a popular herbicide sprayed on corn fields that is also a suspected carcinogen -- that would have lowered the acceptable limit from 3 parts per billion to just 1 ppb -- a limit that some feared would effectively ban the chemical.
In response, the Kansas Legislature that year passed a two-year moratorium on the enactment of any new water quality standards. Legislators also appointed a special commission to study the proposed regulations and make recommendations that would be less demanding on local governments and agribusiness.
The result was a new set of surface water standards that took effect July 1, about the same time the state was sending the proposed TMDL proposals to the EPA.
Those water quality standards set flexible limits on ammonia that vary according to water temperature and stream flow. They also give sewage plants alternatives, other than actually removing the ammonia, to comply with the standards. Those can include expanding the "mixing zones" where ammonia levels are measured, or extending the discharge pipe further into the stream so the effluent mixes with a larger flow of water, thereby diluting it faster.
"It's like the old saying," Benjamin said. "The solution to pollution is dilution."
Stiles said the decision to drop ammonia from the TMDL list had nothing to do with lobbying by municipal governments.
He said the decision came after conversations with EPA officials that occurred after the public hearings on the proposed standards. EPA and KDHE agreed that addressing ammonia through discharge permits would satisfy the goal of reducing ammonia pollution, he said.
-- Peter Hancock's phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is email@example.com.