In August, Frontier reporters will be posting some of their favorite stories from the first half of 2019 and discussing the reporting process that went into the story. Want to support The Frontier? Click here.Municipal wastewater systems aren’t usually something the majority of people spend much time thinking about until those systems fail.
Or until the wastewater ends up in the water they swim in.
When I first heard that wastewater from the town of Carlton Landing had somehow gotten into Lake Eufaula, I wasn’t sure what to expect — was it only a small amount? Was it accidental? Was this the result of an aging system that needed replaced?
It turned out the answer to all of those questions was “no.”
Carlton Landing holds a unique place among rural Oklahoma towns. Located just south of Eufaula off Highway 9A, it is a planned development that was built from the ground up by the Humphreys family. Under the direction of Oklahoma City developer Grant Humphreys and with financial backing from his father, former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, and other wealthy backers, the town was built from the ground up on the walkability and sustainability principals of “new urbanism.”
The houses in the town have a unique architecture, based off those in other new urbanism communities such as Seaside, Fla., and a number wealthy Oklahomans from the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas have purchased houses there.
The political connections of the Humphreys family also opened the door for the town to lease 420 acres of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land around Lake Eufaula, which the town plans to use to develop a sports field, camping areas, a marina and other amenities.
So when I first sat down to speak with Longtown resident Justin McNeil about what was happening with the town of Carlton Landing’s wastewater system, he wanted to know if those political connections extended to The Frontier. The town (and the houses for sale there) was often promoted in local media through advertisements and feature stories.
I assured him they did not.
McNeil made no bones about his motivations in talking to me.
“I want them to stop dumping shit in my lake,” McNeil told me.
McNeil, who lives near Carlton Landing and spends much of his summer on Lake Eufaula with his family, had gathered reams of records from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and other sources.
What those records, and other documents obtained by The Frontier from DEQ, showed was that DEQ had been warning Carlton Landing about its wastewater system for years. The three-cell total retention lagoon system was originally supposed to expand to five cells as the town grew. Long story short, that did not happen, and rainwater that flowed into the town’s wastewater system caused those lagoons to fill and threaten the structural integrity of the lagoons.
Those sewage lagoons were located only a few hundred feed uphill from Lake Eufaula, so when the lagoons filled up from time to time, the company that managed the town (owned by Grant Humphreys) would drain water from the lagoon. Sometimes the water was drained onto the leased U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land.
This resulted in millions of gallons of water from the lagoons flowing into the Lake Eufaula, just downstream from where Longtown’s rural water district drew its drinking water from.
Though DEQ had imposed a consent order requiring Carlton Landing’s water district to pay a relatively small penalty, fix its wastewater system and refrain from draining water out of the lagoons, it continued to do so.
The town’s water district had even set up a non-approved aeration system (which resembles a large sprinkler system), located just uphill from a stream that flowed into Lake Eufaula after being told by DEQ to stop releasing water from the lagoons.
After our first story was published, DEQ opened a criminal inquiry into Carlton Landing’s water district. Many of those who live around or visit Lake Eufaula were outraged — the same lake that Carlton Landing was using to promote itself as a lakeside community was being used as a dumping ground for its sewage lagoons.
Shortly after that first story, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted construction of the town’s projects on its leased land, and the town eventually vowed to not dump anymore water from its sewage lagoons into the lake (instead, water is hauled out to a water treatment plant).
McNeil got his wish. At least for now.
All of this only came to light because of independent journalism that The Frontier specializes in. It took days to fully examine and vet the documents, interview (and sometimes re-interview) sources and write that initial story. And it would have been impossible without you — our readers — who fund this endeavor to help shine a light into the darkness.
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