Wastewater variance bill worries water-quality watch groups

HB 3824 gives DEQ the ability to give industry, water treatment plants a temporary pass

A scenic bend in the Illinois River.

For the CCOF

Water-quality watchers raised alarms this week saying the state’s favorite scenic river could be threatened as the state legislature moves to pass a rule change sought by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

A closer look at the issue shows a melding of parallel currents involving the new bill and long-standing wastewater discharge issues throughout the Illinois River Basin.

House Bill 3824, by Rep. Carl Newton, R-Cherokee, and Sen. Darcy Jech, R-Kingfisher, gives ODEQ the ability to directly adopt water-quality variances—temporary, site-specific allowances—for industrial or municipal wastewater discharges. That authority currently is shared with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and carried out under Environmental Protection Agency oversight and federal Clean Water Act guidelines.

Jech introduced the bill on April 7 to the Senate energy committee saying it was “to help towns with wastewater discharges that can not possibly meet water quality standards with current technology.”

Issuing a permit with conditions a city can’t immediately meet opens communities to third-party lawsuits, he said. A temporary variance allows a community time to upgrade.

The bill passed the committee unanimously without question or debate, as it did through the house committee and floor votes.

The Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club issued an alert for members to contact legislators to prevent polluters from being allowed to continue polluting.

The grassroots Save The Illinois River said legislators lack the historical knowledge to understand the significance of the bill, which the group asserts is tailor-made for the wastewater plant at Tahlequah. The situation there is anything but temporary.

“Their permit has been in limbo for years,” said STIR founder Ed Brocksmith. “They have the technology there to meet the standard but are waiting on the ODEQ to tell them what to do.”

Erin Hatfield, ODEQ communications director, said HB 3824 has no direct connection to the plant at Tahlequah and that the bill only reflects a desire to simplify a rulemaking process that already exists and will continue to function under the same EPA and Water Quality Act guidelines.

 “It’s designed to streamline the process when you boil it all down,” she said. “Right now a facility would have to petition OWRB and then come to DEQ for the permit. This just makes it a one-stop-shop, so to speak.”

The change does not expand the availability of variances, she said.

She did allow that the Tahlequah plant could be an example of a plant that might fall under the scenario addressed under the new rule, but that she knew of no direct relationship between the plant and the bill.

“Say you have a 30-year-old wastewater treatment plant that needs to renew a permit but recently became subject to standards it can’t immediately meet,” she said. “We could grant that variance and allow for progress over time, but only if it is not feasible for that facility to meet that demand today.”

Variances only address standards and must be requested shortly before a permit expires, she said. The situation at Tahlequah is ongoing and part of a different process, she said.

Tahlequah has not been under a “variance,” she said. The plant has continued to operate with discharge capped at an average of 1 milligram per liter of phosphorous under an “administrative continuance” of its permit since June 2010.

Brocksmith said it is long past time the Tahlequah plant and other plants along the river have specific guidance from state and federal officials and that the group’s meetings with wastewater operators indicate that all are capable of achieving emissions at much lower levels.

Numerous reports have identified wastewater treatment plants as the top source of phosphorous pollution in Oklahoma’s scenic rivers and at Lake Tenkiller, he said. Increased levels of phosphorus trigger algal growth, which depletes dissolved oxygen levels, reduces water quality and threatens aquatic life and habitat.

Tenkiller, once a lake of incredibly clear water, now is eutrophic and loaded with thousands of pounds of phosphorous annually, he said.

The average river phosphorous load is supposed to be no higher than .037 milligrams per liter, a standard that is often exceeded at the state line, according to state and joint Arkansas-Oklahoma water quality reports.

New wastewater permits recently approved for upstream municipal plants under the regional Northwest Arkansas Conservation Authority—also operating under administrative continuances for several years—seek an average phosphorous discharge cap of 1 milligram per liter. The same standard currently applies to the Tahlequah plant.

However, on January 21 the EPA filed an objection to those permits and gave Arkansas a 90-day window to reply. That window closes on Friday, April 21.

EPA contends that the plants have the technical capacity to discharge at a level ten times less and that .1 mg/L would better serve the river and help to meet the often-violated .037 mg/L average level required in the rivers downstream.

Jennah Durant, media relations coordinator with EPA Region 6, confirmed the Arkansas DEQ and NACA are still within the window to respond prior to the Friday deadline, after which EPA would assert greater control over the permits.

“We are waiting to see what the resolution is to the EPA’s objections in Arkansas, then we can figure out how to move forward on Tahlequah,” Hatfield said.

Whatever the results in Arkansas and at the Tahlequah plant, Brocksmith said his group will continue to urge people to resist the changes in state law at this time.

“Some say there is a definite tie-in and some in DEQ say it doesn’t have anything to do with Tahlequah,” he said. “What it all says is people need to be watching this issue very closely, and the state legislature is passing through changes without a close look.”

Kelly Bostian is an independent writer working for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans.

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