The variance proposals were chosen to keep Oklahoma competitive with regulations in surrounding states.
Toward the end of February, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board considered two proposed rules that would affect the variance in water standards in Oklahoma. The first, which the board passed, allows a temporary increase in the pollutants that corporations are allowed to dump into the water.
The second proposal, which was supported by environmental groups, would have lowered the amount of chemicals allowed to be dumped into the water. It was withdrawn on Feb. 12, due to concerns raised by the Department of Environmental Quality.
The department believed that decreasing the variance would have put Oklahoma at an economic disadvantage, since the surrounding states are allowed to dispose five micrograms of selenium per liter into their water supply. The proposed rule would have lowered that to 3.1 micrograms.
Since the proposed increase has no clear deadline, the board allowing the variance in water standards to be increased is detrimental to the health of both the environment and the general population.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board is responsible for “water use appropriation and permitting water quality monitoring and standards,” among other duties concerning wastewater management and Oklahoma’s water supply.
By accepting this proposal, the board seems to contradict the Scenic Rivers Act. The act was created in 1968 to protect Oklahoma’s natural streams and rivers. No one is suggesting that Oklahoma’s rivers are clean, but increasing the level of pollutants that industries can now dump into our rivers will disrupt the food chain — and in turn, the environment at large.
Selenium is not an inherently harmful substance. It occurs naturally in the environment but becomes toxic when present in high levels. Excessive selenium enters the water through runoff from agriculture practices or wastewater that is dumped into the rivers from industrial factories.
Selenium causes reproductive issues in fish, which affects the population as a whole. It doesn’t take long for drastic changes to occur, but it does take much more time for the water and fish populations to heal once they have been damaged.
A journal article, “Symptoms and implications of selenium toxicity in fish: The Belews Lake case example,” details how fish populations were damaged when North Carolina’s “Belews Lake was contaminated by selenium in wastewater released from a coal-fired electric generating facility.”
The facility eventually stopped dumping wastewater,, but the fish populations and the health of the lake didn’t recover quickly. High levels of selenium were still present in the water a decade later.
The way the proposal is written is too vague. The language itself is open-ended and provides no clear deadline. The board says the variance will remain “until changes can be practically achieved,” which could make it easier for the board to allow the variance to stay at an increased level indefinitely.
This makes the rule dangerous. As the Belews Lake case shows, the effects of dumping large amounts of chemicals in the environment is no small thing. Even if the variance is lowered at a later date, the damage to the environment may already be done.