The Illinois River in Adair County. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

A proposal backed by industry but opposed by environmental groups that would create a framework allowing variances to water quality standards was approved by The Oklahoma Water Resources Board this week.

Meanwhile, a separate proposed OWRB rule that would have lowered the permitted amount of the chemical selenium in most rivers and streams in Oklahoma was withdrawn before Tuesday’s board meeting, after the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality submitted comments to OWRB opposing the stricter requirements.

The nine-member Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which among other things oversees water use permitting, water quality monitoring standards, and financial assistance for water infrastructure, unanimously approved the water body variance rule at its regular meeting on Tuesday.

The variance rule, which creates a regulatory framework that would allow temporarily lowered water quality standards for a particular pollutant, waterway or wastewater discharger, had met with resistance from environmental groups such as Save The Illinois River (STIR), The Sierra Club, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and numerous individuals during the OWRB’s Jan. 15 meeting. Those groups and individuals said the rule contained no time limitations on how long a variance could last for and would allow industries the pollute the state’s water bodies, including scenic rivers such as the Illinois River, at will.

Proponents of the rule said the measure would give the OWRB the flexibility to work with industries discharging waste or pollutants into state waters to come up with a plan to get into compliance with water quality standards, as the current variance standards are too restrictive. No variances have been issued under the current regulations, according to OWRB.

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“The language we proposed and was passed by our board does not create a variance for any water body in this state. All it does is have our variance language mirror the federal guidance language,” said Bill Cauthron, water quality programs division chief for OWRB. “It sets the foundation for moving forward with a variance, but it doesn’t create a variance.”

Though OWRB’s proposed rule on selenium was also scheduled for a vote by the board during Tuesday’s meeting, it was withdrawn from consideration by OWRB staff after the agency received comments from DEQ that were critical of some of the changes, Cauthron said.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element often found in sedimentary rocks and soils and is often found in waterbodies as a result. However, it can also enter water through agricultural activities, surface mining and wastewater discharges by municipalities and industry. Selenium can accumulate in the food chain and be toxic to animals at higher levels. During the 1970s and 1980s, the fish population in part of Lake Belews in North Carolina was severely impacted with reproductive failures and deformities as a result of selenium poisoning caused by Duke Energy, which had discharged water containing high levels of selenium into the lake.

Bill Cauthron. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Currently, OWRB’s rule on selenium sets a limit of 5 micrograms per liter for fish and wildlife. The proposed rule would have changed the measurement method in flowing waters, requiring testing for selenium in the fish population and set the limit at 3.1 micrograms per liter.

Certain water bodies with high salinity (which could make them susceptible to naturally occurring selenium being present) would not have been affected by the proposed rule change, while rivers such as the Arkansas River, North Canadian River, Lower Canadian River, the Deep Fork and Washita River would have been subject to the new requirements.

In its public comments, DEQ stated that municipalities and industries discharging into those and other water bodies could be negatively impacted by the proposed change, and would put Oklahoma industries at a competitive disadvantage, since surrounding states have the EPA-recommended level of 5 micrograms per liter for selenium. Though OWRB sets the state’s water quality standards, the DEQ is responsible for enforcing many of them.

“DEQ respectfully requests that OWRB withdraw the proposed selenium standard of 3.1 (micrograms per-liter) as it is premature, is being applied inconsistently, and is the answer to a problem that has not been shown to exist,” the DEQ’s comments state. “In addition, it potentially puts the state at an economic disadvantage with our surrounding Region 6 states that have 5 (micrograms per-liter) as a criteria.”

Cauthron said OWRB will continue to work on the selenium rules, and in the short term it may come back in the form of site-specific requirements.

“The fish tissue, I believe, would’ve been a very useful thing to have. But, as I said, there were concerns about the water column numbers,” Cauthron said. “It’s certainly not off our radar yet.”