U.S. Water News Online
SULPHUR, Okla. -- Bloodworms, wriggling in a red colony,
confirmed for investigators what people could smell and water samples
would later show -- something rotten flowed into Dry Sandy Creek.
"Bloodworms are the larval stage of the type of flies you commonly
find at waste treatment plants," said Judy Duncan, a spokeswoman for
the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. "So, if you find
them in streams, you probably have the presence of sewage there."
The 2005 investigation and subsequent field work found one of the
worst municipal wastewater problem in the state. Sulphur, in south
central Oklahoma, picked up a $58,120 fine.
"We don't like to fine municipalities and other governments," said
DEQ attorney Mista Turner Burgess. "We'd rather have them fix the
problem, but sometimes that is not enough."
Although a smelly topic that no one likes to talk about, how to
handle sewage remains a perpetual problem for anyone who ever flushed
a toilet. The wastewater has to go somewhere, and cities,
municipalities and rural water districts spend millions to clean that
water before releasing it.
Sewage spills produce dramatic results. They leave dead fish,
putrid water and a stinging ammonia odor. They can also result in
dramatic fines, such as the $900,000 Okmulgee, in eastern Oklahoma,
must pay for damage done in an August 2000 sewage spill that drew the
attention of the U.S. Department of Justice.
An Associated Press review of four years of state records points
to chronic problems. DEQ took enforcement action on 413 environmental
cases in the past year. Enforcement actions are the department's
equivalent of a police officer writing either a warning or a ticket
for violating the law.
Water quality problems accounted for about half of the enforcement
actions. Sewage alone comprised 30 percent of all actions, according
to DEQ records, a number that has remained constant since the
department's founding in 1993.
"It's a major issue, as are all infrastructure needs," said Cheryl
Dorrance, director of research for the Oklahoma Municipal League.
"Over the past 10 years, it's the most consistent budget buster for
Changing federal and state regulations, paired with aging
equipment, leaves many cities facing a funding nightmare, Dorrance
"The way you did it yesterday may not work today," Dorrance said.
"You may fix something today, but two years down the road you might
find out that it is not fixed any more."
Faulty septic tanks create most of the sewage problems, DEQ's
Monty Elder said. This is why sanitary sewage systems often must
extend lines to areas served by septic tanks as part of the penalty
for violating water standards. The department can keep better track
of one public system rather than scores of private septic tanks and
monitor the work done there.
"Northeastern Oklahoma typically has more problems because of the
local soil type and rock formations and the annual rain amount,"
Elder said. "We are trying to get a handle on the sizing and proper
location of septic systems by encouraging the use of soil profile
descriptions instead of percolation tests."
Programs provide low-cost loans to communities needing
infrastructure work, Dorrance noted. DEQ oversees a program geared to
low-income homeowners. Towns having wastewater problems, however,
often have trouble covering the costs of upgrades.
Eighty percent of families and businesses get water and add
wastewater to public systems, Dorrance said. More than 70 percent of
those systems fail to meet one or more state or federal regulation,
While the regulatory burden seems significant, those regulations
exist to protect everyone, Elder said.
Of particular concern to public health is the amount of fecal
coliform in the water, Elder said. Fecal coliform, a type of
bacteria, naturally occurs in the human digestive tract and aids in
breaking down food. Its presence in the water system, although not
directly harmful to humans, indicates the presence of harmful
bacteria, viruses and parasites.
Sulphur wastewater violated the state standard 18 times between
December 2003 and January 2005. The highest count was
three-and-a-half times the legal limit.
Keith Woodell, Sulphur's public works director, said after
spending more than $700,000 on upgrading the station the city was
close to solving the problems. Four new pumps and changes in the
layout of the station solved the biggest worries, he said.
"It's been a headache," Woodell said. "I've got it on the downhill
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