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Archive for Saturday, April 26, 2003

Water quality standards draw Sierra Club wrath

Group threatening to sue EPA

April 26, 2003

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— An environmental group is threatening to file another federal lawsuit over water quality issues and is upset about a new Kansas law revising pollution standards.

The lawsuit would be another part of a nine-year legal battle waged by the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club over the pollution standards the state sets for its rivers and streams. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is involved because the EPA reviews states' standards under the federal Clean Water Act.

The lawsuit against the EPA would be designed to force the federal agency to declare that the state would not be complying with the Clean Water Act if it followed a 2001 state law revising water quality standards.

This year, legislators passed a bill rewriting the 2001 law, in an effort to deal with the EPA's potential concerns. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed the bill into law Monday.

The new law sets allowable levels of bacteria for five different classifications of waters suitable for recreational uses.

Friday, Charles Benjamin, a Lawrence resident and attorney for the Sierra Club, said the group planned to tell the EPA it would sue the federal agency if it did not reject provisions in the 2001 law.

And Benjamin said his group objected to having the Legislature write water quality standards -- instead of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment -- because lawmakers deferred too much to agricultural interests, which he said were responsible for much of the state's pollution.

"You've got the Legislature setting water quality standards written by the agricultural interests," he said. "You've essentially got a situation of the fox guarding the chicken house."

Sebelius said she signed the bill after her aides talked to EPA officials and learned the measure would not cover all of the EPA's concerns.

"I think the whole issue will be back on the table for us to visit across the board, and we will start the process all over again," she told reporters.

Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson, dismissed Benjamin's criticisms.

"The Sierra Club seems to be a party that's hard to satisfy," he said. "If they weren't suing, they wouldn't be happy."

The Sierra Club has long contended that Kansas is not complying with the Clean Water Act, allowing too much water pollution. Its position puts it at odds with agricultural groups, who argue the environmental group would force tough standards on dry or intermittent streams.

Pushed by a Sierra Club lawsuit, the EPA three years ago proposed new, stricter standards for Kansas.

A 2001 law set lower standards for waters that are not suitable for fishing and swimming, allowing 10 times the concentration of bacteria than in waters that are suitable for such uses -- 20,000 colonies per liter, rather than 2,000.

After the law passed, KDHE and EPA signed an agreement under which KDHE could designate 1,456 stream segments and lakes as unsuitable for fishing and swimming while KDHE studied them to determine the proper designations.

Earlier this month, a federal judge told the EPA and KDHE the streams instead must be designated as suitable for fishing and swimming until KDHE can justify less regulation.

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