Public urged by TPWA to report illegal dumping in city manholes

May 17—An odor hanging over Tahlequah from the wastewater plant is improving, but grease in the manholes is causing the persistent smell.

"Somebody's still dropping grease into the manholes," said Scott Wright, Tahlequah Public Works Authority board chair. "We need to get the public to pay attention, to help, report it, be attentive."

The dumping is occurring in different manholes, Wright said.

Superintendent Darrell Curtis said, before the Friday, May 17, TPWA board meeting, that the balance in bacteria in the sequencing batch reactors is finally returning to normal.

The continued illegal dumping can create more disruption in workings of the plant and cause the odor to linger.

District Attorney Jack Thorp provided information on penalties for the illegal action. Title 27A, "Environmental and Natural Resources, Section 2-3-504, Penalties for Violations of Code," states it is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $200 for each violation and not more than $10,000 for each violation.

Imprisonment of not more than six months in the county jail can be imposed, along with the fine.

An administrative fine not to exceed $10,000 could be levied for continued noncompliance. Offenders may be required to pay, in addition to the fines, attorneys fees and costs associated with the collection of penalties, states Title 27A(C).

The first time the illegal dumping occurred causing a disruption in the reactors was in May 2023, and the odor had become a nuisance by August of that year.

"It takes time with these systems — sometimes weeks, if not a month — to get back fully to normal," said David Lindsey, plant foreman when this event occurred.

At that time, the public was asked to help and law enforcement was keeping an eye out for any suspicious activity around the manholes.

Curtis notified the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality on July 19, 2023, that another unknown pollutant had upset recovery efforts and further impaired the biological treatment.

In April 2024, a dump occurred again, causing the odor to return. Councilors during the April 4 Tahlequah City Council meeting heard an update about the strong smell about which city residents were complaining.

"We are aware of the odor issues permeating the city and are actively working on correcting this issue," said David Lindsey, now TPWA director of special services. "We believe unknown substances were illegally dumped into manholes at some point."

When someone dumps substances into manholes, it can kill the good bacteria used for waste treatment and can take months to remedy a situation like this, Lindsey said.

At that time, TPWA was bringing in sludge and good bacteria to cure the problem and the correct balance was returning.

What's next

The next TPWA meeting is June 21, 9 a.m., at 710 W. Choctaw St.