Up the Creek

Like many bodies of water in the state, the Kansas River is not in the best shape. It’s what folks at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) call “impaired.” Depending on flow levels, the Kaw is at times so contaminated that the fish and plants living below its surface are in danger. So to protect these living things, state regulators try to cut down the amount of pollution that’s dumped into the river. Usually this process is straightforward: They slap discharge restrictions on licensed polluters — often factories and sewage plants — and then monitor the results. But like the rivers it seeks to protect, this system can take some unpredictable twists and turns.

One of the strangest has occurred in Lawrence. KDHE asked city officials to strike a bargain with Farmland Industries, a polluted fertilizer factory just outside city limits that flushes high levels of contaminants into the river every time there’s a hard rain.

Lawrence’s and Farmland’s wastewater discharge permits both expired at the end of 1998. The permits are essentially licenses to pollute, but they also limit the amount of contaminants flushed out into nature each day. With both permits up for reconsideration, KDHE wanted to address a concern it had about the ailing Kaw: The two facilities are so close together that the effluent from Lawrence — which is upstream from Farmland — doesn’t have enough time to properly dilute before it flows past the factory’s drainpipe. When the two waste flows combine, KDHE feared, they could raise pollution to dangerous levels.

At issue were levels of ammonia, a substance that’s particularly harmful to fish. Both Lawrence and Farmland are allowed to dump ammonia in the river. Lawrence’s treatment plant releases a lower concentration — but a higher rate — of ammonia than Farmland. And, at the same time as the city’s permit was coming up for renewal, Lawrence officials were planning a $37 million upgrade to their sewage plant. The city’s rapidly growing population meant more ammonia would gurgle out into the river.

Eyeing this potential contamination cocktail, KDHE officials ordered Lawrence to work out a deal with Farmland on how much ammonia each of them would be able to wash into the Kaw.

The city — which boasts a practically impeccable record of compliance with environmental laws — suddenly faced the possibility of tougher regulations that would, in essence, protect a factory downstream that has an irritating history of noncompliance. Lawrence City Manager Mike Wildgen recalls thinking: “Why would we want to do this? They’ve got all this ammonia on the ground, and it flushes out whenever it rains. We’ve got problems of our own. Why do we want to solve theirs?”

But KDHE officials saw it another way. “Lawrence is saying, ‘All we have to do is meet the standard criteria, and too bad for Farmland,'” says Ed Dillingham. “And what we’re saying is, no, Farmland shouldn’t have to clean up Lawrence’s pollution.”

Over the course of a year, the two parties met for what Wildgen calls “heavy discussions.” Neither Lawrence nor Farmland officials could agree on a compromise. So last December KDHE decided the matter by setting ammonia limits once and for all.

Farmland officials say they’re happy with their allocation and will have no problem meeting it, weather permitting. “Most of the time, I think we don’t have a problem,” says Ralph Scott, director of technical services. “Our biggest problem is when we have a high rain flow.”

Lawrence officials are less excited about their allotment. “It was the best we could get at this point,” Wildgen says. At stake, he says, is the city’s future.

And it could get worse for Lawrence. The new permits stipulated that both parties had to conduct dye tests to determine how much of their effluents actually mix. So in early October, they dumped fluorescent dye into the watery refuse. Engineers placed fluorometers at various spots in the river to detect faint traces of the dye. The test cost taxpayers in Lawrence $36,000. The results are not yet in (they’re expected in the next couple of weeks), and Lawrence officials are keeping their fingers crossed. “We hope the tests show we’re having fairly good mixing in the river before our effluent ever reaches Farmland,” says Roger Coffey, Lawrence’s director of utilities. Farmland’s early test results seem to support Lawrence’s high hopes. “Based on the tests we did, it looks like the mixing levels are actually lower than what (the state) projected,” says Scott.

But Dillingham told Pitch Weekly he expects the tests will show otherwise and that Lawrence will face tougher limitations. That could force city officials to make more costly upgrades to the plant — if they want to accommodate all the overflow from the new toilets in Lawrence’s bulging suburbs.

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