The League of Kansas Municipalities levied a surcharge on cities to pay for an environmental lobbyist and consultant.
Taxpayers in many Kansas cities helped pay for lobbying efforts that resulted in looser state water quality standards that spared them from having to upgrade their sewage treatment plants.
In addition, all cities that belong to the League of Kansas Municipalities, including Lawrence, began paying a special "surcharge" to that organization this year to pay for continued lobbying and consulting services on environmental issues.
The results of that effort were described in an article published this week in the "Kansas Government Journal," a publication by the League of Kansas Municipalities.
John C. Hall, the Washington, D.C., consultant who lobbied for the looser standards, said the effort resulted in "changes to the state water quality standards and implementation policies which will provide significant relief to many communities."
"The revised limits represent a situation in which little additional treatment is necessary for compliance compared to the original limits," Hall wrote.
Those statements, as well as the new regulations behind them, have angered environmental groups that say the new regulations represent a step backward in water quality regulation in Kansas.
"If you read Hall's argument, he's basically admitting there was a degradation (of the standards)," said Charles Benjamin, an attorney for two environmental groups that are suing the Environmental Protection Agency for allegedly failing to enforce the federal Clean Water Act in Kansas.
The lobbying effort began in 1997 when the Kansas Department of Health and Environment proposed an update to the state's water standards that would have severely limited how much ammonia could be present in lakes, rivers and streams.
Since sewage treatment plants are the biggest source of ammonia pollution, many cities in Kansas worried the rules would force them to spend millions of dollars upgrading their sewer plants.
Don Moler, executive director of the League, said several cities got together and hired Hall as a lobbyist to fight implementation of the new standards.
Although he could not provide a complete list of those cities, he said it included Independence, Fort Scott, Ottawa, Topeka and Johnson County Water District No. 1.
The 1997 Legislature suspended implementation of the standards and appointed a special Surface Water Quality Commission to propose new standards for ammonia and chlorides, which come from wastewater plants, and atrazine, a widely used farm herbicide that has been linked to cancer.
Those new standards, according to the article by Hall, let each city negotiate "site-specific" ammonia limits using larger "mixing zones" and seasonal adjustments, resulting in higher allowable levels of pollution.
According to a chart in the article, ammonia limits under the old rules ranged from 2.1 to 2.7 parts per million, but with the new rules they can range from 12 to 53 parts per million.
Dave Wagner, wastewater superintendent for Lawrence, said the looser standards will have no impact on the design of a $40 million expansion and upgrade of the city's wastewater plant that is scheduled to begin next year
Wagner said the city will design its facility to comply with the stricter limits by removing most of the ammonia from the effluent.
Last October, Moler said, the League of Kansas Municipalities voted to fund an ongoing environmental lobbying and consulting program with a special surcharge on membership dues.
For Lawrence, the surcharge amounted to $3,299.56 in 1999. The city's total fees and dues to the league amounted to $25,957.07, according to city finance director Ed Mullins.
Moler defended the use of public money for lobbying against tighter water standards, saying it resulted in substantial savings for taxpayers and utility ratepayers.
"It's the public's money one way or the other," he said. "We think (environmental regulation) has to be done in a smart way, and it has to be done in a cost-effective way. Eventually, you have to ask yourself, at what point is it clean enough?"
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