Sewage pollutes water, ground statewide
Sewage pollutes water, ground statewide
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 municipal officials."
Changing federal and state regulations, paired with aging equipment, leaves many cities facing a funding nightmare,
"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
"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, Dorrance said.
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 drag now."