Environmental Protections Weakened By State/Federal Budget Reductions

You don’t have to be a “flaming liberal tree-hugger” to be concerned about the funding cutbacks in state and federal environmental programs.

President Donald Trump and his hatchet man, Scott Pruitt, want to slash the budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 31%. Doing so would, by default, shift responsibility for many environmental programs/services to the states.

But in Oklahoma, the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Republican Governor have cut the budget of the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) by 38.5% over the past three years.

As an example, DEQ had 39 field offices when the agency was established in 1993. That number has gradually declined to 22 now; two of those field offices closed in the last three years.

If the DEQ’s budget is cut again this year, virtually every Oklahoman could be at risk from various environmental hazards.

The Republican chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee recently advised state agencies to be prepared for budget reductions of 14.5%. And that was before GOP State Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger revealed that he “borrowed” $240 million from the Constitutional Reserve “rainy day” fund to pay bills; that money is supposed to be replaced by July 1, the start of Fiscal Year 2018.

However, the State of Oklahoma already faced a budget deficit of $878 million this year; if the Executive Branch raid on the state’s “rainy day” fund is included, along with $10 million in lottery proceeds diverted from public schools that have to be repaid, the budget shortfall is approaching $1.3 billion. And that comes on the heels of a $1.3 billion shortfall last year, a $611 million deficit in 2015, and a $188 million deficit in 2014.

Earlier this month House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said members of his caucus told him they don’t even want to start looking at tax increases – such as the proposed $1.50/pack cigarette tax hike, repealing the latest income-tax cut, raising oil and gas gross production taxes from 2% back up to 4% or 5%, and the governor’s plan to increase the motor fuels tax and expand the sales tax base – until after state expenses are examined thoroughly. (I thought that’s what the Legislature was supposed to do every year…)

So, Oklahomans of all ages can expect various environmental protections to be curtailed or eliminated entirely. Following are illustrations of what’s in store.

Water Quality Issues

Both the DEQ and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) have fewer resources to devote to water quality protection from maladies such as lead contamination and amoebic dysentery, a disease that can be spread via polluted water.

The OWRB’s Rural Economic Action Plan (REAP) allocation, from which grants are issued to local utility managers to help finance expensive repairs to or replacement of crumbling water and wastewater systems, has been trimmed in recent years.

The REAP was created by the Legislature in 1996 to help finance capital improvements in small communities. Initially the program was seeded with $15 million annually; however, the legislative appropriation to REAP has since been scaled down by 35.6%, to $9.65 million this fiscal year. The Water Board’s share of the REAP has been reduced by 26.7% in the last four years: from $1.62 million in 2014 to $1.19 million in 2017.

DEQ Executive Director Scott Thompson previously expressed concern about the state’s drinking water program.

His agency used to have 81 environmental specialists in field offices to monitor community water/wastewater systems, but now has approximately 55. DEQ has 11engineers on staff (interviews are under way to hire another) to oversee and lend assistance to 253 drinking water treatment plants and nearly 1,700 public water supply systems. DEQ engineers also provide emergency response, technical assistance, investigate complaints, respond to violations and threats to public health, etc.

Twenty-eight public water supplies that serve more than 64,000 Oklahomans have registered exceedances in lead since 2013, DEQ records show. Almost all of the public water systems that surpassed the maximum lead limit are in rural areas, the state agency reported. Many of the water systems flagged for excessive lead have fewer than 100 customers, including several mobile home parks, The Oklahoman newspaper reported in February.

Typically the problem is caused not by lead in the water supply, but by outdated pipes and plumbing fixtures that leach lead if the water is too corrosive.

Last fall the DEQ cited scores of public water systems throughout the state for being out of compliance with a water quality standard established by the EPA. All of the citations arose from a problem associated with the use of chlorine to disinfect water.

A byproduct of chlorine treatment of water when it mixes with some organic materials is trihalomethanes (THMs), which have been linked to bladder and colorectal cancer. The EPA has lowered the acceptable level of THMs from 100 parts per billion to 80 ppb.

In a related matter, the City of Stillwater notified the EPA recently after the municipality modified its water disinfection process, which resulted in a river of complaints about the taste and smell of the water pouring from faucets.

One Stillwater Facebook user’s 4-year-old son said his bath “smells like the YMCA pool…” City Water Resources Director Bill Millis said the elevated levels of chlorine are within levels authorized by the EPA and the DEQ.

Maybe so, but state Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, said “…the reality is it smells like I’m drinking bleach.”

Millis said the more highly chlorinated water has to work its way through the entire municipal network, which means the taste and odor problems will persist for two to three more weeks.

In another case, The Oklahoman reported last November that a solvent used by a now-closed aerospace plant at Wiley Post Airport threatened to contaminate Bethany’s municipal water supply with groundwater pollutants detected in concentrations as high as eight times the federal limit, according to DEQ records.

In 2015 the water in Hugo made national headlines because of its turbidity. The DEQ had cited a litany of violations of the town’s water system in recent years, including malfunctioning disinfection equipment at the water treatment plant.

Tar Creek Superfund site

The area known as Tar Creek is part of the Tri-State Mining District, an area of 1,188 square miles located in Ottawa County (Picher and Cardin), Oklahoma; Southwestern Missouri and Southeastern Kansas.

During World War I, the region supplied 45% of the lead and 50% of the zinc used by the U.S. Advances in technology resulted in increases in production, and thus Ottawa County became the world’s largest source of lead and zinc.

“Between 65% and 85% of the lead fired by the Allies in World War II came from that mine field,” said Rep. Ben Loring, D-Miami. “It saved our country; it saved the world. But now we don’t seem to care that it is still killing people.”

“If you want to see how Oklahoma handles the environment, look up Picher, Okla.,” wrote Zachary Austin Pearson of Oklahoma City.

Mining ceased in the 1970s, and chat piles – virtually mountains of scrap, actually – that were left behind by the mining companies contain lead dust that has blown around the area.

The Oklahoma portion of the Tri-State Mining District encompasses more than 40 square miles, five towns and an entire watershed, and more than 100 million tons of chat remain on the Tar Creek site, the DEQ reports.

Elevated lead levels in Picher children led to learning disabilities and other problems. The lead and zinc also seeped into groundwater, ponds, and Tar Creek, which flows into the Neosho River, a tributary that feeds Grand Lake. The EPA declared Picher to be one of the most toxic areas in the United States, and eventually the federal government bought out the landowners in Picher and Cardin, leaving both communities ghost towns.

The Quapaw Tribe has acquired large portions of that land in Ottawa County and is continuing efforts to clean it up, although a project of that magnitude will take years and billions of dollars to achieve. The tribe is making a dent in the chat piles by selling it to customers in other states for use as an aggregate substitute in hot mix asphalt.

DEQ’s activities at Tar Creek have included:

  • managing the remedial design and remedial action of residential yard cleanups in Ottawa County;]
  • hiring a consultant to take samples and create site-specific remediation designs for all residential yards that required cleanup;
  • starting the bidding process to hire a contractor to clean up residential yards in Tar Creek;
  • managing the cleanup of mine-waste contaminated properties that are non-tribal land within the Tar Creek Superfund site;
  • remediating seven properties along the Beaver Creek watershed that contain mine waste;
  • working with EPA to secure funding to start the cleanup of multiple contaminated properties in the Elm Creek watershed;

The agency claims on its website that DEQ also studied concentrations of heavy metals in fish from waters polluted by the Tri-State Mining District, including Tar Creek.

Experimental Paving Project Suspended

One of the state environmental casualties of the cut in DEQ funding and legislative raids on its bank accounts was an experimental road paving project.

Wagoner County Commissioner Tim Kelley said that in 2014 his staff helped the DEQ clear a dump in his district that contained more than 5,000 tires.

The next year the DEQ asked Kelley whether he’d be interested in participating in an experimental project in which used tires would be ground up and mixed with asphalt for paving roads. Tentatively the plan called for one section to be paved with a 5% mixture of rubber; another section, 10%; another section, 20%; and a control section paved just with pure asphalt, Kelley said.

The state Transportation Department, the University of Oklahoma and the DEQ planned to study the performance and durability of the alternative pavements. If successful, the project would create a new market for old tires and stretch the amount of asphalt available for paving.

Kelley said his road crews milled the old asphalt, built new driveways and replaced almost all of the drainage culverts along four miles of county roads – two miles on 257th between 131st and 111th, and two miles on 111th between 257th and 225th – and prepared an 8-inch aggregate base on the two sections. “We spent a lot of time and probably $200,000 just on getting the roads ready,” he said Tuesday.

The project was let out for bids and came in, under budget, at $833,000, Kelley recalled; the expense was to be borne by the DEQ. A contract was awarded, he said, but on May 26, 2016 – one day prior to a pre-construction meeting scheduled on the project, and the day before the Legislature adjourned last year – “we were called and told by the DEQ that they couldn’t do the project because the Legislature had taken their money.”

The Legislature siphoned $1 million from the used-tire disposal fund last year to help plug the state’s $1.3 billion budget hole, and diverted $2 million from the same fund the year before, ledgers reflect.

The experimental paving contract was canceled, Kelley said, because, “I couldn’t afford an expense like that.” Instead, he diverted $325,000 from “other projects I had planned” and put down a 2-inch asphalt overlay rather than the 4-inch asphalt/rubber mixed surface initially planned. Coupled with the preparation expenses, Wagoner County was out half a million dollars that otherwise would have been spent to pave other segments of the 400 miles of roads in Commissioner Kelley’s district, about half of which are unpaved.

The one thing DEQ did do was reimburse Wagoner County for expenses incurred in removing the 5,000 tires from a creekbank, Kelley said.

Fenton Rood of the DEQ said Oklahomans discard approximately one tire per person per year.

The agency recycled 3,791,170 tires in Fiscal Year 2016, according to Ferrella March, manager of the DEQ’s Tire Recycling Program. The vast majority of those were tires that processors collected from dealers, from dismantlers (such as vehicle salvage yards), and from communities that conducted clean-up campaigns.

It also included 84,241 tires removed from dumpsites, Ms. March said. She estimated that Oklahoma has fewer than 40 illegal dumpsites remaining today, compared to “at least a couple of hundred” that existed when she was hired at the DEQ in 2006.

The tire recycling program is financed with fees that are collected on each new tire purchased. The tires are shred or ground down to various sizes that are further processed into products such as artificial turf, playground mulch or molded rubber products, or are burned as an alternative fuel source.

Qualified applicants for collection and transportation of waste tires in this state include Oklahoma Tire Recyclers of Bristow, Four-D Corp. of Duncan and RTR Environmental of Noble, all of which grind tires into crumb rubber; Lone Star Industries cement kiln of Pryor and Holcim Cement Kiln of Ada, both of which burn used tires as a fuel; and Geocycle, also of Ada, which shreds tires. All of those companies collect and transport used tires.


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Media Director, Democratic Caucus
Oklahoma House of Representatives
(405) 962-7819 office
(405) 245-4411 mobile