Controlling pollution by 65%, 50%, 39% -- and falling

By Ken Midkiff

COLUMBIA, Mo 8/20/14 (Op Ed) -- Back in 1998, the Sierra Club and the American Canoe Association filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failure to conduct a required study -- the Total  Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of pollutants Hinkson Creek can handle while still meeting Federal water quality guidelines. 

Scott Dye -- then director of the Sierra Club Water Sentinels -- and I were the lead plaintiff contacts on the lawsuit over the creek, which flows through Columbia and had been on the Federal Impaired Waterbody list for years. 

We won in 2000, when a Federal court ordered EPA to conduct a TMDL study complete with remediation recommendations, by December 31, 2010.   The EPA delegated (i.e. punted) the task to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR).

The longstanding problem was -- and still is -- that an unidentified pollutant or chemical soup of different pollutants impacts the Hinkson's aquatic life.   MDNR determined the pollutants were in stormwater runoff, and recommended a 65% runoff reduction.  The City of Columbia, the University of Missouri, Boone County, and assorted developers all reacted as if a cattle prod had been jammed in their behinds, so MDNR "revised" its recommendation downward, to a 50% runoff reduction.

But after the same "responsible parties" still objected, EPA asked for an extension, to do the study itself. On recommendations from Mr. Dye and me, the Sierra Club and the American Canoe Association concurred.

At the end of January 2011, EPA recommended a stormwater runoff reduction of 39.5%. Down nearly 30% from the original recommendation, it still wasn't low enough to placate those who had fouled the water or allowed it to be be fouled.   Pulling the train for developers, the City of Columbia claimed the reduction would cost about $3 million, basing its estimate on little more than a wild guess: similar estimates in Vermont!

Later that year, the responsible parties -- City, County, and University -- hatched a devious plan from the fertile mind of attorney, Columbia resident, and KFRU radio show host David Shorr.   Shorr's plan allowed them an indefinite number of years to clean the creek.   EPA and MDNR approved, aided, and abetted this so-called "Collaborative Adaptive Management (CAM)" agreement, which sounds effective but has proved meaningless.

To this day, Hinkson Creek does not meet Federal Water Quality Standards, according to MDNR testing. Even more troubling, raw data about the creek's water quality, says a knowledgeable MDNR staffer, is not available.  We don't know if the creek is any better, worse, or about the same as it was 16 years ago.

But one thing we do know: State and Federal agencies caved into CAM, a plan to stall, delay, and pretend.

Pretend that everyone can learn to love dirty water.   It took years to foul the Hinkson, and normally it would take years to clean it up.   Under CAM, however, it could take a lot longer than that.