Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Oklahoma Needs $2 Million to Prevent an EPA Takeover of Its Drinking Water

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

DEQ Water Quality Division Director Shellie Chard-McClary addresses Tuesday's meeting of the Water Quality Management Advisory Council in Oklahoma City.

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality is scrambling to come up with the money to comply with new federal clean drinking water regulations.

If it can’t, the state could have its power to regulate the safety of drinking water revoked by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The DEQ says it need $2 million to cover the costs of complying with three EPA rules put in place in 2005 and 2006. The state environmental agency has asked the Oklahoma Legislature for the funding for three years.

Losing Local Control

“Once those three new rules were in place, we knew we did not have the resources to implement those, and EPA determined they would continue implementing those until we got the funding in place,” says Shellie Chard-McClary, director of DEQ’s Water Quality Division.

The EPA sets the standards for clean drinking water and states enforce them. It’s called the Public Water System Supervision program. Every state participates in PWSS, except Wyoming, which never has.

Oklahoma might soon become the second state with the federal government in charge of the safety of its drinking water.

In a letter to Oklahoma Secretary of the Environment Gary Sherrer, EPA Regional Administer Ron Curry said the state has until June 1, 2013 to fully implement the federal rules, and outlined what a federal takeover would mean for Oklahoma.

“Such a primacy shift would result not only in decreased technical assistance and increased federal enforcement of Oklahoma’s public water systems, but would also result in a loss of many millions of dollars available annually for the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund…”

Communities and rural water districts in Oklahoma depend on that fund for loans they need to upgrade water systems.

Without roughly $10 million from Washington, D.C., each year — which the state leverages into millions more in loans — Oklahoma would be on its own to modernize its aging water infrastructure. Coming up with money to enforce the EPA rules is the more affordable option.

“Extended timeframes for rule adoption have been granted and have expired, and previous commitments by the ODEQ to secure necessary resources … have not been fulfilled.”

-From EPA Regional Administrator Ron Curry’s letter to Oklahoma’s Secretary of the Environment

Time is Running Out

DEQ Executive Director Steve Thompson says he has little doubt the EPA will follow through with its threats.

“The upcoming Water Quality Management Advisory Council and Environmental Quality Board meetings and 2013 legislative session represent the last opportunity to avoid EPA’s assumption of control of Oklahoma’s PWS Program,” Thompson wrote in a letter to water-challenged communities.

He says the latest proposal is for $1.5 million in new appropriations from the legislature and $500,000 in new fees charged to water systems across the state.

On Tuesday, the advisory council approved the new fees, which are expected to be passed along to consumers.

The board heard comments from the public before the vote, including from Rita LoPresto, city manager of Konawa, Okla., a small town with big water problems. She says the EPA doesn’t have a local touch.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Justin Johnston, a wastewater treatment plant operator in Konawa, Okla., crouches next to a decades old sludge pump during a tour of the town's water system.

“The staff at DEQ — whenever I can call them and say, ‘I’m out of water. This is what’s going on. These are my ideas. What do y’all think? Help me,’ and they’re there, that means more than all these regulations and everything,” LoPresto says. “I won’t have that if we go with EPA.”

When StateImpact visited Konawa last month, LoPresto worried federal control would mean $15,000 per day fines for missing deadlines to fix the town’s water pressure problems. She says DEQ works with her on things like extending deadlines.

“I mean, even though I have a deadline to fix the water pressure in this town, they know that I’ve already replaced this and this and this with as many grants and as much lending — borrowed money — that the city could borrow,” LoPresto says.

Finding the Funds

Most state agencies are still reeling from budget crisis cuts over the last few years.

This year’s legislature won’t be excited to spend, either. But Chard-McClary thinks lawmakers will like the idea of an EPA takeover even less.

“Although it has been attempted in the past, I think this has been the best cooperative effort in trying to get the funding in place,” McClary says.

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  • ItsObvious

    Seems more like a misappropriation of funds problem, time for someone else to run the department if in over 8 years the powers that be cant be held accountable to do their job and risk losing control over it to the fed.

    • disgvnv

      Depending on $ to leverage loans ? To actually fix what? What has DEQ really done? If I read this article correctly 3 yrs. have gone by and no mention of concrete fix to any thing but feathers in the nest of administrators of questionable effectiveness. Why the last minute scare tactics ? What will the $2 million do for Oklahomans ?

  • trumpet 3

    Maybe some of the DEQ staff (the very-well paid ones) will hve to take a cut in salary. In fact, even without this threat from the EPA, that saved money could be used on enforcement of other environmental regulations.

  • Brian Moore

    Maybe the EPA should take it over. Oklahoma hasn’t been doing a very good job of it. I get notices all the time saying “Oops. Your drinking water failed the tests and has cancerous stuff in it. Our bad.”

  • ex-employee

    The easiest way for ODEQ to come up with $2 million would be for them to fire all of the unnecessary employees they have, which ranges from 50-90% of the staff depending on which department (air, land, water, lab, legal,etc.). The ODEQ laboratory is rife with fraud and incompetence from the management and even some of the analysts. Getting rid of the laboratory would solve multiple problems in ethics and funding while the State of Oklahoma would be able to retain primacy over drinking water. The lab testing could easily be performed by local labs that are actually doing something positive for Oklahoma’s economy instead of ODEQ essentially stealing from the taxpayers.

  • 7 years … how much water does it take to do in a state?!! Blue a.blue82@yahoo.com

  • Don_Liston

    In this century we have the money and resources to redistribute water from the Great Lakes and even to desalinate the ocean for drinking purposes. All we need to do is build a plan and fund it with tax dollars.
    We could get the tax dollars by postponing all WARS until we more important things paid for.

  • Truth Sayer

    I have received nothing but abuse from DEQ. They are incompetent, and I have a former DEQ employee who is willing to testify in court to their corruption and incompetence. I need a good attorney – one who has sued the DEQ and won. Anybody know such an attorney?

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