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Archive for Tuesday, March 27, 2001

EPA AND STATE STRIKE WATER DEAL

March 27, 2001

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Topeka -- State and federal officials Monday announced they have reached an agreement that they said will put Kansas streams and rivers in compliance with federal water quality regulations.

But environmentalists disagreed, and they said they would continue to press their lawsuit seeking to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make Kansas clean up its waterways.

Announcement of the deal struck between Kansas and the EPA came the day before today's meeting between EPA officials and attorneys from environmental groups that are suing the agency.

"This memorandum of understanding (between Kansas and the EPA) has nothing to do with our lawsuit," said Charles Benjamin, a Lawrence attorney representing the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club.

But while Benjamin dismissed the significance of the agreement, state and federal officials praised their handiwork.

Gov. Bill Graves called the deal "a sensible approach."

The agreement was signed by Clyde Graeber, secretary of health and environment, and William Rice, the EPA's acting regional administrator. Graves' office announced the agreement.

"It was clear that everyone participating in the negotiations understood the importance and advantage of keeping the water quality programs at the state level," Graves said in a news release.

Dale Armstrong, a spokesman for the regional EPA office in Kansas City, said, "The whole intent was to find a way that Kansas could meets its needs and still meet the requirements under the federal Clean Water Act."

Sen. Robert Tyson, R-Parker, who led efforts to adopt legislation to reduce restrictions proposed earlier by the EPA, said the agreement was "a good deal."

"I'm just very excited for Kansas and for state's rights," he said.

The agreement sets out a schedule for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to assess 1,456 water segments to determine what level water-quality standards should be placed on them. It also lists several state water-quality guidelines that must be modified.

All the changes will be submitted to EPA for approval. During this process, EPA agrees not to impose stricter water-quality standards than it had proposed last summer.

But Benjamin, the Sierra Club attorney, notes that one part of the agreement prevents any side from suing the other side.

"There is no enforceability. It's all voluntary," he said.

That provision alone, Benjamin said, "certainly affects our willingness to settle the lawsuit."

Water pollution has been one of the major battles during the current legislative session.

Under fire from environmental groups, the EPA last summer issued rules to force KDHE to establish strict guidelines on water quality.

Thousands of people, mostly tied to agriculture, protested the rules, saying the EPA was trying to require that farms ponds and dry creeks that flowed only during floods be clean enough for fishing and swimming.

Under the new agreement, most farm ponds would be exempt from the water-quality standards, Tyson said.

Tyson and a Graves' spokesman also said that legislation that sets out how KDHE will go about classifying streams will not interfere with the agreement. That legislation is now being considered by lawmakers.

-- Staff writer Scott Rothschild can be reached at (785) 354-4222.

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