Environmental group says Missouri should halt some water studies

Monday, July 30, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ST. LOUIS — An environmentalist group wants Missouri to stop funding certain water studies, saying the research fails to accurately determine which streams are used for swimming and would therefore qualify for greater environmental protection.

The Department of Natural Resources said the studies are designed to determine whether streams are 1 meter, or a little more than 3 feet deep. That is considered a sufficient depth for swimming. Those that qualify must have cleaner water than those that are not.

Kim Knowles, attorney for the St. Louis-based Missouri Coalition for the Environment, says the studies fail to show accurately whether people use even shallow streams for recreation.

Department officials are spending about $300,000 this year on private studies used to exempt some 220 small streams statewide from a key water-protection measure, the coalition said.

Knowles said the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees clean water law, had in many cases rejected the state’s findings. Despite the rejections, the state is using taxpayer funds to redo the same studies, she said.

“So, we’re actually paying for them twice,” she said. “DNR is grossly underfunded and lacks the staff and money to do the basic water quality monitoring and permit enforcement work it is mandated to do.”

Phil Schroeder, head of the department’s water quality monitoring, said the $1,000 to $1,500 cost of a study was steep for mobile home parks, rural communities and others seeking renewal of operating permits for their small sewage treatment facilities.

If part of the affected creek doubles as a swimming hole, federal clean water law requires that treated sewage get disinfected to kill more bacteria. That can cost millions of dollars, he said.

The department is dedicated to enforcing clean water regulations and is tightening rules for the studies to ensure that small but swimmable streams are protected, he added.

Knowles said the department appeared more concerned with granting permits to wastewater treatment facilities than protecting Missouri’s waterways.

The coalition said the state was in its third year of paying for the studies. “These studies are payouts to polluters at taxpayer expense,” said Kathleen Logan Smith, head of the St. Louis-based organization.

Knowles said people, particularly children, will play in water that is less than a meter deep. She said if bacteria is festering in those streams, children can get infected.

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