With Kansas ranked at or near the bottom for the quality of its rivers, lakes and streams, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is going the wrong way in considering relaxing its standards for ammonia, environmentalists say.
New rules are being considered and probably will pass allowing wastewater treatment plants like one in Lawrence and at private companies like Farmland Industries Inc. to discharge more ammonia into the state's water, said Mike Tate of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's bureau of water.
The rule changes are based on research by the Environmental Protection Agency that shows ammonia is less toxic in colder water, Tate said. The standards being considered allow for a sliding scale based on temperature.
"The criteria became slightly, and I would emphasize slightly, less stringent," said Larry Shepard, big rivers coordinator for the regional EPA office in Kansas City, Kan.
Ammonia has a dual punch on fish and other water creatures, said Terry Shistar, a member of the environmental watchdog group Kansas Natural Resource Council.
"It's poisonous to the fish," said Shistar, who lives near Lone Star.
And it is a nutrient for algae that grow and then draw oxygen from the water, further hurting the fish, Shistar said.
The new regulations are being considered relatively soon after the last set of regulations were approved in December.
"There's always been a lot of pressure on KDHE to raise the amount of ammonia they let into streams" Shistar said. "This has always been a hot issue because it costs money to take the ammonia out."
Lawrence is spending that money in its planned $40 million expansion and renovation of its waste water treatment plant.
The project includes two large aeration basins designed to allow microbes to process the ammonia. Without the ammonia rules, the basins would need to be only about half as large, said Dave Wagner, city wastewater plant superintendent.
But Wagner doesn't believe the rule changes will mean much for the Lawrence plant.
Processing ammonia is not something you can dial in to a specified level, Wagner said.
"You kind of either do it or you don't," he said.
Ralph Scott, Farmland technical services superintendent, similarly doesn't expect the new rules to drastically change that company's ammonia process.
Wagner said a relaxing of the standards may give the plant a little more breathing room as the city grows.
The plant was designed to serve a city of 100,000 people, a number that planners project the city will hit by 2010.
"If the standard relaxes, we'll have potentially a little more capacity to play with," Wagner said.
Biologist Walter Dodds of Kansas State University predicts the opposite.
Dodds said proposed EPA restrictions will bring much more stringent nitrogen standards by 2003. Ammonia is a type of nitrogen.
"What will happen is wastewater treatment plants may view this new scale as a way to either build plants that release more nitrogen or not upgrade," Dodds said. "We could well be setting up municipalities to take a hit later."
Shepard, of the EPA, said the new standards planned for 2003 have yet to be determined and may not, in fact, mean more restrictions on Lawrence and other treatment plants.
And Shepard said the new ammonia standards being discussed now won't have an effect on wastewater treatment plant improvements being planned or considered.
"In the end, it won't cause you to either upgrade or not," Shepard said.
Shistar believes the ammonia and other standards should be tightened up.
The payoff would be a healthier river, she said.
Rare fish returned to the Arkansas River when Wichita upgraded its treatment plant, Shistar said.
"We know it has an impact," Shistar said. "We've seen the effects in rivers when we've cleaned them up."