Federal regulators have pulled the plug on permits issued for sewage treatment facilities in northwest Arkansas that are draining into streams within the Illinois River watershed.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality approved the permits in December over the objections of Oklahoma agencies and Save the Illinois River Inc. EPA officials said the upstream state ignored objections and recommendations, issuing permits that differed from the draft permits and then failing to submit them for additional review in violation of the Clean Water Act.
Objections: Charles W. Maguire, director of the EPA’s District 6 Water Division, said in a letter referring to the agency’s statement. “ADEQ did not accept the Oklahoma recommendations, and the EPA has determined why ADEQ rejected the recommendations as inappropriate.”
EPA refusal of permits, under the terms of the CWA, converts final permits issued by ADEQ into the proposed permits. The EPA will issue specific objections by early March to the proposed permits which will give ADEQ and other interested parties an opportunity to request a public hearing.
If there is no public hearing and ADEQ fails to resubmit a permit that addresses EPA’s private objections, the exclusive authority to issue permits will pass to the federal regulators.
The National Pollutant Removal System’s permit for Springdale water utilities would have retained a phosphorous cap of 1 mg/L. The proposed statement authorized a less frequent surveillance standard that critics asserted was too lenient.
The proposed permit granted to the Northwest Arkansas County Authority, a regional wastewater treatment facility that plans to expand capacity, would eventually allow for a tenfold increase in phosphorous levels in treated wastewater there. Arkansas regulators justified the increase with a program that allows for nutrient trading compensation.
ADEQ officials, in response to comments provided by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, confirmed the assumption that the time frame for the total phosphorous concentration limit had been changed to reflect revisions to the downstream state water quality standard. The phosphorous standard for the Illinois River and its tributaries was changed earlier this year in part to make it a more consistent measure from a shorter average period that existed.
Rebecca Vega Nascimento, an OWRB ecologist who led the revisions to the Oklahoma phosphorous standard for the Illinois River, Barren Fork and Flint streams, provided comments on the draft Springdale permit. It stated in the documents submitted that the “average duration of six months … identified as reasonable and preventive” for the beneficial uses of the Illinois River “may not translate smoothly into a sanitation limit of an average continuous discharge period of 24 million gallons per day.”
“The monthly average period for liquid permit limits is essential for more accurate and consistent assessment of effluent quality and permit compliance, which is vital to ensuring that the Oklahoma TP water quality standard is achieved statewide,” Veiga Nascimento stated in OWRB comments submitted during the permit renewal process. An average six-month period of effluent reduction would allow for significant variance in TP wastewater quality, which could lead to increased TP contributions in the Illinois River and continued failure to obtain WQS in Oklahoma.”
In their response, ADEQ officials stated that the maximum allowable mass for total phosphorous “remains a monthly average limit in accordance with federal regulations.” They also noted a “new seven-day average limit for concentration,” which raised an objection from the manager at Springdale Water Utilities, which is expected to “prevent wide fluctuations in phosphorous loading and ensure consistent effluent quality through permit compliance.”
In comments provided on behalf of the Tahlequah-based Citizens Coalition, STIR President Dennis Dyson-Twain expressed concerns about allowing the facility to continue operating at its current maximum total phosphorous. Watersheds threatened by nutrients face increased risks as populations continue to grow within the watershed.
The deterioration of water quality within the Illinois River watershed has been attributed to increased nutrients—particularly phosphorous—in the streams. Increased levels of phosphorous lead to algae growth, depleting dissolved oxygen levels, reducing water quality and threatening aquatic life and habitats.
Desson-Twain said state line phosphorous levels continue to exceed the phosphorous standard set in Oklahoma’s scenic rivers despite ongoing efforts to mitigate the problem. She said the main contributing factor to this is the increased flow of treated wastewater.
“STIR does not believe the provisions in the license draft will enhance protection of the Illinois River in Oklahoma, nor does it feel that the proposed permit restrictions for phosphorous will help achieve the goal of meeting the 0.037 mg/L phosphorous limit set by Oklahoma,” says Dyson-Twain in Organization comments. “Specifically, STIR objects to the persistence of the 1 mg/L TP (total phosphorous) limit in the permit when technology is in place to reduce it to the 0.1 mg/L limit or less.”
Springdale Water Utilities is working on a master plan for a wastewater treatment facility and has the capacity to discharge 24 million gallons of treated wastewater per day. About 200 pounds of phosphorous dumps every day into Spring Creek, which flows into Osage Creek, a tributary of the Illinois River upstream from the Oklahoma border.