On May 5, 2008, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality received a phone call from an Oklahoma City resident about some dead fish.
The resident told DEQ there were between 20 and 30 dead fish in Chisholm Creek near N.W. 150th and Western Avenue. The estimated number was a bit off. It turned out there were more than 800 dead fish in the creek.
The fish kill was the result of a backed up sewer problem, and it cost Oklahoma City dearly. DEQ imposed one of its largest fines ever on the city, half a million dollars.
The incident was a nasty one, not just in terms of the sewage. The fine was the biggest DEQ assessed in the past five years. While the matter was a great cause of concern and anguish " not to mention the cost " for Oklahoma City officials, it was just a normal routine for DEQ.
Since 2004, the department in charge of regulating the state's environmental responsibilities has handed down more than 3,700 violations to various companies, government entities and individual citizens. Several violations resulted in thousands of dollars in fines, but many were not fined at all.
"We have a similar number each year as far as enforcement action that we open," said Martha Peniston, DEQ general counsel. "We have many more Notice of Violation issues, but the majority usually comes back into compliance after we issue an NOV."
The violations cover nearly every aspect of environmental polluting, from emitting massive amounts of carbon into the air, to changing the oil in a car. Combing through the large volume of DEQ assessed violations from the past few years, sewage seeping on the surface of the ground is the main culprit. Other violations include equipment improperly installed or installed by an unlicensed person, discharging wastewater without permission, illegal trash dumping and failing to report to DEQ when a violation has occurred.
Peniston said the last one listed may be for several reasons.
"Either they didn't realize it was a violation at all, or they knew there was probably something wrong but they didn't have the money to fix it, or they were just lazy or any number of things."
The fines can range from $100 to $10,000 a day, which leads to massive checks to the state. Between 2004 and 2008, DEQ assessed more than $7.3 million in fines. Most of the fines were small ones to individual residents. The larger ones fell to companies or municipalities.
The $500,000 fine imposed on Oklahoma City was the result of a manhole that was overflowing with wastewater into a creek. According to DEQ documents, the city determined the manhole had been vandalized with metal posts and then the manhole lid dropped inside the hole, creating the overflow. The city agreed with DEQ's assessment and will finish paying off the fine in August.
The Chisholm Creek violation came just one year after the city negotiated another violation concerning dead fish and in a separate incident of wastewater flowing into an apartment complex.
In July 2007, DEQ investigated a fish kill at a pond of The Lakes at Traditions residential neighborhood near N.W. 150th and Santa Fe. City officials told DEQ a water line was damaged when it we being tested and disinfected, according to DEQ documents. A valve was released, which allowed sodium hypochlorite to flow from the line into a nearby storm drain that flowed into the pond. DEQ reported more than 200 fish of various sizes and species were found on all banks of the pond. The city also acknowledged it failed to report the incident to DEQ as is required by law. The city was fined $20,000.
The same month of the pond violation, the city was sent a Notice of Violation concerning wastewater that had backed up into several apartments at a complex in south Oklahoma City. According to DEQ documents, Oklahoma City Wastewater Superintendent Allen McDonald "expressed concern that the (city) was being selectively targeted for enforcement actions." The matter was resolved and the city was not fined for the violation.
Among the biggest violators DEQ records show in the past few years include:
Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority for illegal wastewater discharges and failing to report the incidents, resulting in a $248,000 fine. Norit Americas for excess carbon emissions at its carbon manufacturing plant in Pryor, resulting in a $115,000 fine. Magellan Pipeline Company for improper gasoline pumping and noncompliance with air quality regulations at its facility in Enid, resulting in a $475,000 fine.
Peniston said in most cases, the two sides come to an agreed-upon fine.
"I think most of the time they realize something has gone wrong. If they don't realize it before they get the NOV, they understand after they get it. The majority of the time most people want to come into compliance and be cooperative and want to work with us to get back into compliance."
With individual resident cases, the fine is often waived.
"Many times," she said, "if it is just an individual, there is no way that individual is going to be able to pay a large fine, and so we take those things into account." "Scott Cooper