MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

December 29, 2011

Senators weigh in on river battle

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer



Oklahoma’s two U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Dan Boren joined their Arkansas colleagues in an apparent effort to steer the development of federal water-quality standards for the Illinois River.

The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of developing water quality modeling for the watershed, which stretches from northwestern Arkansas into Oklahoma. Once completed, the project would establish total maximum daily loads for certain pollutants into the Illinois River and its tributaries.

A letter signed by Boren, U.S. Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe and three federal lawmakers from Arkansas urged the agency “avoid the use of flawed modeling ... based on unsound information.” The lawmakers also expressed concerns about any model that would “inflict unneeded and inappropriate control mandates.”

The lawmakers requested they be fully informed about the EPA’s progress toward the development of a water-quality model and the establishment of subsequent standards.

Ed Brocksmith, a co-founder and spokesman for Save the Illinois River Inc., described the contents of the letter as “somewhat worrisome.”

“On one hand you can look at this letter and say, ‘This is good, they want to make sure this is done right and good science is being used — we all want that,” Brocksmith said. “On the other hand, you have to look at those who have been vocal about this — the poultry folks and other northwest Arkansas industries — and then out of the clear blue you’ve got our people in Congress weighing in on this issue.”

Brocksmith said to his knowledge Boren, Coburn and Inhofe “have been missing in action” when it comes to issues relating to water quality in the Illinois River. The fact they are weighing in now along with Arkansas congressmen, Brocksmith said, is cause for concern.

There were no immediate responses Wednesday to inquiries sent Wednesday to Boren, Coburn and Inhofe’s media representatives about the letter submitted to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Brocksmith said the timing of the letter also causes concerns because it was sent just before the Oklahoma Water Resources Board is expected to decide whether to adopt a recommendation to fully implement the state’s numerical standard for phosphorus in its scenic rivers system.

“That standard is one reason why STIR is optimistic the water quality in the Illinois River will continue to improve,” Brocksmith said. “Recent efforts in Congress to dismantle the Clean Water Act and efforts by northwestern Arkansas industries lobbying against implementation of the numerical standard is certainly a cause for concern.”

The numerical phosphorus standard adopted by the state and approved by the EPA about 10 years ago is scheduled for full implementation next year. Arkansas interests have opposed the 0.037 mg/l standard, saying it is unattainable.

Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission and OWRB member, said the numeric standard replaced a narrative standard that prohibited the introduction of pollutants from new sources into Oklahoma’s scenic streams.

Brocksmith said the EPA’s efforts to develop a model to determine a total maximum daily load for phosphorus and other pollutants could have an impact on enforcement of the state’s numeric standard for phosphorus in the Illinois River and Tenkiller Lake.

“This would show what cities would have to do to meet that total maximum daily load limit,” Brocksmith said. “Hopefully, that would also address nonpoint sources like poultry wastes.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.