Illinois River photo by Keith Dunlap, Tahlequah
Reaction to State's Support of Wastewater Plant is Surprise and Disappointment
MARCH 8, 2022, STIR STATEMENT
SAVE THE ILLINOIS RIVER PRESIDENT DENISE DEASON-TOYNE ISSUED THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT MARCH REGARDING EPA OBJECTIONS TO A SEWAGE TREATMENT PERMIT IN THE ILLINOIS RIVER WATERSHED AND OKLAHOMA'S LETTER TO ARKANSAS DIVISION OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY
STIR is very disappointed in Oklahoma Environment Secretary Ken Wagner’s letter to the Arkansas Environmental Quality Division. STIR welcomes the EPA’s position on northwestern Arkansas sewage treatment permits which will increase the load of polluting phosphorus to the Illinois River. Just when we needed EPA to step up its game and protect the Illinois River watershed, Oklahoma’s top environmental official seems to have cut the legs out from under EPA by saying one of the permits, the most worrisome one, no longer is a concern to Oklahoma. It’s a concern to STIR…it’s a major concern.
We wonder when Oklahoma leaders will stop kowtowing to Arkansas’ bureaucrats and stand up for Oklahoma Scenic Rivers? Did not the United States Supreme Court rule Arkansas has to meet Oklahoma’s water quality standards?
The U.S. EPA and Oklahoma objected to new permits for wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) approved by the State of Arkansas. The WWTPs discharge to tributaries of the Illinois River. The EPA believes the permits will violate Oklahoma water quality standards, allowing more polluting phosphorus in the scenic Illinois River. The permits appear to be "backsliding" on pollution from Springdale, Arkansas and from the Northwest Arkansas Conservation Authority (NACA) wastewater treatment facility on a tributary of the Illinois River, EPA said. Sprindale is the largest contributor of treated waste in the Illinois River watershed.
But to Oklahoma's top environmental protection official, those controversial permits seem to be alright and comply with a 2018 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed by the states in order to have Arkansas' approval of Oklahoma's phosphorus limit for scenic rivers.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, and STIR said the permits won't meet our limit for phosphorus adopted in 2002. That limit is 0.037 mg/L and is exceeded by more than 90-percent at the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. The permit for NACA's future "Tier II" operation not only allows a higher limit for phosphorus, 3.5 mg/L, it also increases flow to 7.2 million gallons a day. The present permit is for 3.6 million gallons per day and point-one mg/L total phosphorus.
Conservation organizations are concerned because the increased "loading" of phosphorus in the Illinois River is not sustainable because of the population growth in northwestern Arkansas.
IS THE TIER II PLAN FOR NACA SUPPORTED BY SCIENCE OR IS IT SMOKE AND MIRRORS?
In a letter to the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality, Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment Kenneth Wagner, a former official in President Trump's EPA, appeared to signal the NACA permit is no longer a concern to Oklahoma. The letter was a surprise to water conservationists and to some within state regulatory agencies. Many are puzzled why Secretary Wagner even wrote the letter unless politics is in play.
Under Tier II of the permit, Arkansas is counting on the connection of smaller wastewater treatment facilities in northwestern Arkansas to NACA and the elimination of private septic systems. The environmental benefits of phosphorus reduction through connecting small sewage treatment facilities and septic systems to the regional sewage plant is not proven. Any benefit will be proven only when and if smaller cities and homes connect to NACA facilities.
While STIR has no objections to regional treatment of northwest Arkansas' growing volume of waste, we question the science behind Arkansas' claims of a net reduction of phosphorus loads to the Illinois River. We also believe Secretary Wagner's letter signaled state approval of the NACA Tier II permit and seemed to throw EPA under the bus. Conservationists have longed for EPA support ever since the federal agency backed away from a comprehensive pollution prevention plan for the watershed.
In an article by D.E. Smoot of the Muskogee Phoenix, Secretary Wagner walked back his support for Tier II.
From the 3/8/22 article: Wagner said Oklahoma "is supportive" of the revised permits "provided ADEQ can demonstrate that the increases in the NACA or Springdale Permits correspond to actual reductions from older, less compliant systems." Below are relevant statements from correspondence about the NACA permit: (see 11/04/20 item from ADEQ's web page for the NACA permit).
In addition to violating the anti-backsliding provisions of the CWA and federal regulations, the 0.35 mg/L Tier II TP effluent limit in the proposed permit fails to satisfy the requirements of 40 C.F.R. 122.4(d) because the permit fails to ensure compliance with the water quality standard of the downstream State of Oklahoma, as discussed in Item 2 above.
To eliminate the EPA’s specific objections to the proposed permit, the DEQ must revise the 0.35 mg/L Tier II TP limit in the proposed permit to reflect a 0.1 mg/L Tier II TP limit (as a 30-day average) at Outfall 001.
From Secretary Kenneth Wagner's letter to Arkansas: (see 2/22/22 letter on ADEQ web page).
The response to comments (by ADEQ) adequately demonstrates the offset of total phosphorus loading and ensures that permitted mass loadings will not increase. Our concerns about the increased loading and anti-backsliding was directly related to the lack of a demonstrated regionalization that is contained in the revised permit. Our understanding of the permit was that regionalization was always intended at the stated limit. It should, however, be recognized that the MOA signed in 2018 sets up a framework for the states, working with the Cherokee Nation, to have reasonable regulatory flexibility for approaches that will continue to make material reductions in phosphorus loading in the watershed. Arkansas has not issued a new draft permit for the NACA facility or for Springdale despite EPA's objections.
THE POINT-ONE (0.1) MG/L PHOSPHORUS LIMIT FOR THE NACA FACILITY IS TEN TIMES MORE PROTECTIVE OF THE ILLINOIS RIVER THEN ARE THE PERMITS OF TAHLEQUAH OKLAHOMA OR FOR THE ARKANSAS CITIES OF SPRINGDALE, ROGERS, AND FAYETTEVILLE WHICH ALL ARE AT ONE-MG/L FOR TOTAL PHOSPHORUS. ARKANSAS FIRST PROPOSED POINT-5 MG/L TOTAL PHOSPHORUS FOR THE NACA FACILITY AND LATER REVISED THAT TO 3.5 MG/L FOR TIER II. THE PHOSPHORUS LIMIT FOR THE ORIGINAL NACA FACILITY (THE OSAGE BASIN REGIONAL TREATMENT FACILITY) WAS SET AT POINT-ONE MG/L BY EPA AFTER STIR OBJECTED TO THE PERMIT. ARKANSAS REFUSED TO ADOPT THAT LIMIT BECAUSE IT HAS NO NUMERIC PHOSPHORUS WATER QUALITY STANDARD.
STIR's Board of Directors will hold its quarterly meeting Thursday, March 17,2022 at Noon at the White Wolf Restaurant in Tahlequah. New member Paul Rowsey of Sequoyah Club will be welcomed to the board. Please RSVP if you plan to attend by calling (918) 284-9440.
STIR...WE ARE WATCHING THE WATER FOR YOU