Oklahoma's Department of Environmental Quality has opened a criminal investigation into a resort town at Lake Eufaula and fined the town's water district nearly $100,000, saying the community has a significant history of unapproved discharges from its lagoon system into Lake Eufaula.
The DEQ says Carlton Landing has discharged millions of gallons of partially treated wastewater into the lake since March of last year.
Carlton Landing says what's being discharged is not sewage, but rain water and is cleaner than most lake water.
Carlton Landing is a town with its own government and charter school and was created to be a relaxing oasis. In six years, they're up to more than 200 homes with room for thousands more.
They currently operate a three-lagoon system that was approved for 72 homes. The founder, Grant Humphreys, say DEQ told them in 2016, the lagoons were at capacity, so they started looking for solutions.
In the meantime, he says the amount of rain water coming into the system was so great, they feared it would erode the sides of the lagoon and the entire thing would dump into the lake. He says to avoid that, they discharged that water into the lake, even though it wasn't permitted by DEQ.
Grant Humphreys, says, "The water that was taken out of the lagoon system was partially treated wastewater that statistically, factually, if you look at the lab test results, is of a safer nature, it's cleaner than most lake water."
Nearby neighbors in the community of Longtown don't see how that could be true and DEQ tells me, the lagoons contain wastewater, sewage and rainwater.
"Rainwater to me is having a rainwater gauge in your yard. It rains and you look at it, 2-3 inches, you dump it out, that's called rain water. When I stick a hose in my sewer lagoon and run it out to the lake, that's no longer rain water, that is sewer," said Justin McNeill with Concerned Citizens of Longtown.
Justin McNeill says everyone should be held to the same standard when it comes to following the rules. He made an open records request to DEQ and received more than two-thousand pages he says detail a history of violations at Carlton Landing.
DEQ documented lagoon discharges on:
DEQ admits it doesn't know exactly how much Carlton Landing discharged because there wasn't a flow meter attached to the pump to measure it.
Justin McNeill, says, "DEQ should've stopped this years ago. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it didn't happen. I've got a beautiful wife and three great kids that swim in this lake. The last thing I'm going to do is let some town pump sewage in my lake."
Grant Humphreys says his family also swims in the lake, and they've done everything possible to mitigate any environmental impact and he believes Carlton Landing serves as a national example.
He says the town will build a water treatment plant that can handle 80-160,000 gallons a day, versus their current 18,000 gallon capacity, but he says he had no idea that process would take three years.
In April, after DEQ threatened to fine Carlton Landing, $10,000 a day, if there were any more releases into the lake, the town discharged onto the land through an aeration system, even though that too, was not permitted.
Humphreys says that was better than the alternative, a total collapse of the lagoon.
Grant Humphreys, says, "Either way, it's not permitted and so it's not like we're doing it, trying to get away with anything, we're doing it in a way to try to mitigate the environmental impact as much as we can."
DEQ says protecting the lagoon's dike is of upmost importance but says there are legal remedies Carlton Landing could’ve done that they did not do.
"This is sewer, coming out of a sewer lagoon. It doesn't matter if it's going into my lake or on the land, that's a problem," Justin McNeill said.
DEQ has now approved Carlton Landing to discharge onto the land, and Humphreys says that system should be operational in a matter of weeks, which they'll use until their water treatment plant is operational, by January 1.
He says until the land application system is in place, they'll have vacuum trucks pump from the lagoons and dispose of it properly, something Longtown citizens say should've been done a long time ago.
Humphreys says everything they've done has been reported and documented to DEQ with transparency.
Grant Humphreys, says, "We don't take an unpermitted discharges lightly. We know that's a serious offense. We also know we're in a unique situation because of the amount of rain water that goes into our system and we've been working three years and we're almost to the final step of getting our plant in place."
DEQ says the last time Carlton Landing's water district had an unpermitted discharge, was May 9th, but says a DEQ staff member was on site on May 30th and one of the lagoons was overflowing.
Carlton Landing's fines will be reduced by more than $23,000 if they adhere to a D-E-Q schedule for certain tasks. DEQ says Carlton Landing has paid $39,275 to date and the remaining amount is not due yet.
They issued the following statement:
PRESS RELEASE on behalf of Carlton Landing:
Excessive precipitation combined with capacity limitations at the Pittsburg County Rural Water District No. 20 (“District”)’s existing wastewater treatment system, necessitated previous controlled releases from the system in order to prevent one of the treatment system’s lagoons from breaching and causing a total failure of the system. All of the controlled releases were reported to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) as required by an administrative agreement reached by the District and the DEQ. Although not meeting the levels provided in the District’s DEQ issued OPDES permit, recently obtained water samples from the point at which these releases occurred indicate that water released from the system is actually lower than the ambient conditions in the lake for important markers such as E. coli.
The District is in the process of constructing a new wastewater treatment plant that will provide excess capacity that eliminates the situation described above. The administrative agreement entered into by the District and the DEQ provides a schedule by which the District is to construct and operate this new wastewater treatment plant. The District is in full compliance with the schedule set forth in the agreement. The District’s Engineering Report was approved by DEQ this past March, and the Plans & Specifications for the project are currently under agency review. The District anticipates that the construction of the new plant will be complete well ahead of the completion date (October 1, 2020) identified in the agreement.
On May 18, 2019, the District passed a resolution specifically prohibiting any further releases from the existing system. While awaiting completion of the new Wastewater Treatment Plant, the District will either employ water trucks or use a DEQ permitted land application system to properly dispose of excess water in the existing wastewater treatment system. Once funding is approved, it is anticipated that the land application system will be operational within three to six weeks and will provide sufficient additional capacity to the District’s existing lagoons. Until the land application system is operational, the District will use water trucks to transport excess wastewater from the existing system to the Eufaula Water Treatment Plant for proper disposal.
The District appreciates the efforts of DEQ staff and looks forward to working with the agency in expanding the District’s capacity to treat and properly dispose of wastewater in a manner that furthers the agency and the District’s common goal of protecting Lake Eufaula.