When a Missouri group sued Worlds of Fun for its pollution of waters that eventually lead to the Missouri River, the last thing it wanted was to loosen environmental regulations.
The Missouri Coalition for the Environment in 2016 reached a settlement with Worlds of Fun, which includes Oceans of Fun, and the park has followed the terms of its agreement so far.
But this year, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources loosened the park's permit under the Clean Water Act, allowing it to send more pollutants into the river.
"You want this to strengthen the environmental law," Heather Navarro, executive director of the St. Louis-based Coalition for the Environment, said of the lawsuit. "You want to uphold the clean water laws, and often what happens is instead of strong enforcement, they increase the limits."
In the park's most recent permit, the state increased or completely removed limits for several pollutants, including chlorine, oil and grease, and total suspended solids (solids in water that can be trapped by a filter), The Star found.
Pollution inside the park itself is not an issue. But environmental groups are concerned about both the overall water quality of the Missouri River and the fate of a rare and ancient sturgeon as pollutants flow from outfalls at the park into creek tributaries and eventually the river.
Larry O'Donnell, president of the Little Blue River Watershed Coalition, called the permit level increase a "back door" for allowing pollution.
"DNR is not servicing the people of Missouri, it's servicing industry," he said. "They're the Department of Natural Resources, not the Department of How Many Resources Can We Screw Up."
Under the Clean Water Act, restrictions on effluent discharge can be loosened only in certain circumstances. The DNR said it now believes Worlds of Fun's old permit was incorrect and that the park should never have been held to the same standards as a traditional wastewater facility, said Paul Dickerson, compliance and enforcement chief for the DNR's Water Pollution Control Branch.
"We want people to know that we did not change this arbitrarily," he said.
Chris Foshee, spokesman for Worlds of Fun, said the park would not comment on the change in levels on its latest permit. However, he said the park did not dispute the old limits when it appealed the permit earlier this year. That appeal, he said, dealt mostly with wording and was dismissed in May.
The coalition's lawsuit focused primarily on the park's history of noncompliance with its state permit from 2010 to 2015. According to the suit, the amusement park had "ongoing, repeated, and unlawful discharges of toxic water pollutants" in violation of the Clean Water Act and regularly dumped chlorine, copper, total suspended solids, oil and grease in amounts that exceeded the limits allowed by its state permit.
The suit also said that Worlds of Fun regularly failed to conduct required monitoring or report that data to the state and did not comply with the schedule to make wastewater treatment facility improvements.
Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun, which have combined operations, are owned by Cedar Fair, a publicly traded company that had net revenue of $1.3 billion last year. Cedar Fair is one of the largest regional theme park operators in the country, with more than 25 million visitors across its 11 parks last year.
As part of the settlement, Worlds of Fun paid $100,000 to two groups for river cleanup activities, replaced its oil and water underground tank at the Prowler ride and provided oil release reports to the state's hazardous waste program, in addition to paying civil fines.
While the water in the Missouri River is "not going to eat the skin off your body," O'Donnell said, he doesn't advise people to drink it or go in it after a big rain. The long-held theory that "dilution is the solution to pollution," or the approach of allowing even small levels of pollution in water, is flawed, O'Donnell said.
"It doesn't just disappear; it's going somewhere," he said. "People downstream are going to pay for that. ... Basically, you're letting industries and corporations put stuff in the water that municipalities will have to take out in order for people to drink the water. That's not right for the common good.
"Go tell the aquatic life in the stream that a little more chlorine isn't going to hurt them. The reason they put chlorine in water is to kill bacteria. It kills things in the stream."
Despite meeting the terms of the settlement, Worlds of Fun recently was in violation of its permit because it had not reported the amounts of pollutants discharged into Shoal Creek tributaries since April, Dickerson said.
But after The Star called the park last week to ask about its noncompliance, it filed the reports with the state.
The permit program sets requirements for regularly monitoring and reporting the amounts of pollutants. In 2017, when the park filed its reports with the state, it had three separate permit violations, Dickerson said: two for total suspended solids pollution and one for oil and grease pollution that exceeded allowed limits.
Dickerson said the department had reached out to Worlds of Fun about its recent missing report but "had difficulty getting ahold of folks."
Inaction by the DNR is what prompted the Missouri Coalition for the Environment's suit in 2015, the coalition said.
From 2010 to 2015, the DNR sent Worlds of Fun at least 24 "Letters of Warning" and at least 10 "Notices of Violation," according to the suit. But that apparently is as far as it went.
"The state of Missouri wasn't doing their job," said Ed Smith, policy director for the coalition. "We rely on government entities like the Department of Natural Resources to be responsible for upholding clean water laws. … We have these laws for a reason, and they need to be enforced."
The EPA delegates most of its compliance and enforcement responsibility for federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act to states. In Missouri, the reports that show levels of pollutants put in the water are self-reported by permit holders.
On-site inspections by the state usually occur every five years as permits expire, Dickerson said. However, the coalition's lawsuit prompted the state to do an immediate inspection in 2015, and the park was found to be out of compliance at that time.
Dickerson said the department oversees more than 10,000 permits across the state. At the Kansas City regional office, there are about 10 inspectors.
"We have limited resources," he said. "If it's brought to our attention and there's a real problem there, we'll take a look at it."
But Bob Menees, an attorney with Great Rivers Law, which helped the coalition with its suit, said being short-staffed should not be an excuse for not following up on reports that show an obvious violation.
"It's low-hanging fruit for the agency to say, 'Here's a problem, let's address it,' " he said.
In the last year, the DNR has also changed its mission statement, which Navarro said she believes is reflective of its new approach.
The old mission statement said, "The mission of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is to protect our air, land and water; preserve our unique natural and historic places; and provide recreational and learning opportunities for everyone."
Now, it says, "The mission of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is to protect Missouri's natural resources while promoting the environmentally sound operations of businesses, agriculture and industry in our interactions with the public."
Navarro said it "sends a strong message when the department puts the interests of private business in its mission statement."
"We want to make sure everyone knows they live in a watershed and what that means and how the things we do on a daily basis affects water quality. Oftentimes when you think about water quality, you think about drinking water, but what you see in the park is also ultimately impacting the quality of our water."
The Missouri River is home to the pallid sturgeon, a fish protected under the Endangered Species Act and mentioned in the coalition's lawsuit.
"The reason we're paying attention to the health of the pallid sturgeon is because its health is tied to our health," Navarro said. "If the pallid sturgeon is not doing well, it says something about the quality of the water, which is something we all depend on."
Pallid sturgeon have been around at least 70 million years but were listed as endangered in 1990. Over a century ago, pallid sturgeon were overfished for their eggs, which were sold as caviar. A whiskered bottom feeder, the fish can get up to 6 feet long and its flat belly and snout make it more hydro-dynamic.
"It's a fish that loves big rivers, muddy rivers. It's got a tremendous sense of smell and touch. It's adapted to a low-light environment," said Robert Jacobson, supervisory research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has worked on the Missouri River since 1993 and led studies on the fish.
But there is not enough information to determine how much water quality impacts the pallid sturgeon, Jacobson said.
"The Missouri River is like a house full of loaded guns, but there's no smoking gun on how water quality affects the pallid sturgeon," Jacobson said.
Researchers are in a bit of a Catch-22: Because the fish are protected, they can't catch and then study specimens in an autopsy. And because they can't study them as thoroughly, they have a harder time determining environmental factors that harm the few that are left.
They have determined, however, that adult pallid sturgeon have a much higher survival rate than younger ones, which means that whatever is keeping them from thriving is likely affecting young fish more.
If there is an acute contaminant in the river or a drop in dissolved oxygen, that could potentially be life-threatening, he said, particularly when the sturgeon are young.
Things like oil and grease have organic compounds that can be toxic, he said, and as they break down, it creates a demand for oxygen in the water, increasing the dissolved oxygen level. Adult fish could simply swim away to other areas, but not the young drifters.
Other potential contaminants, like chlorine, can also be harmful depending on concentration. And copper is very toxic to many organisms, Jacobson said.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of holes in our knowledge about how things specifically affect this organism,” he said.
Dickerson said the state continues to check with Worlds of Fun on its pollution monitoring reports but that the department primarily focuses on entities with consecutive quarters of noncompliance.
Navarro said the coalition will continue to keep tabs on Worlds of Fun and encourage improvements. In the meantime, she said, consumers can make a difference.
"So many companies, including water parks, are responsive to consumer demand — like people demanding a certain quality of food or using recycled bags," Navarro said.
"Consumers can make more demands for the environment through purchasing and can have a real impact."