Records: Town’s water district dumped millions of gallons of water from sewer lagoons into Lake Eufaula

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The town of Carlton Landing. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier
The town of Carlton Landing is an idyllic planned community, nestled on the shores of Lake Eufaula, just south of the town of Eufaula. Ecological stewardship and sustainability are listed among the core tenants of the “new urbanism” philosophy central to the town’s founding and development by Oklahoma City developer Grant Humphreys.

However, the town’s water district has dumped millions of gallons of untreated water from its sewage lagoons onto U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land and into Lake Eufaula, according to Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality records.

For years, the town’s wastewater system has run afoul of numerous regulations by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, eventually resulting in violations of state and federal water pollution laws, an investigation by The Frontier has found.

Last week, Carlton Landing’s water district, Pittsburg County Rural Water District #20, was fined nearly $63,000 and placed under a consent order by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality after the district failed to complete all of the requirements of a separate consent order issued by DEQ in March last year. That order was issued after repeated warnings over several years about problems with its sewage system, according to a review of DEQ inspection reports since 2012.

Though the DEQ could have assessed fines of up to $10,000 per-day, per-violation, the total fines assessed against the Carlton Landing water district under the 2018 and 2019 consent orders come to less than $70,000, though it may wind up paying far less than that in penalties.

DEQ records show that Carlton Landing had been warned for years about problems with storm water flowing into its sewage system that caused its lagoons to rapidly fill, unlined lagoons and torn liners in lagoons that allowed water to seep from the system, and “bypasses” or discharges from the lagoon system that were not reported to DEQ.

Meanwhile, even after the 2018 consent order, the town continued to pump water out of its rapidly-filling sewage lagoons, with the most recent bypass of the lagoon occurring last week, according to DEQ.

Not far from the site of where the lagoon water has flowed into Lake Eufaula, the Longtown community’s Pittsburg County Rural Water District #1 draws drinking water for its more than 2,200 customers from Lake Eufaula.

Longtown’s water district has not had any notices of water quality violations for years, said Dennis Sizemore, manager for the water district. But at the same time, little information about the lagoon water discharges from Carlton Landing has been made available.

“We’ve been asking questions, but nobody will tell us anything yet,” Sizemore said. “They’re keeping us in the quiet about it.”

The Longtown water district also sells drinking water to Carlton Landing’s water district.

Records show that between May 19, 2017 and Dec. 31, 2018, there were at least six separate “bypasses” of Carlton Landing’s sewage treatment system, five of which came from the sewage lagoons — a series of three lagoon cells covering an area of around five-and-a-half surface acres.

A sprinkler system to allow the wastewater to be pumped from the lagoon applied to nearby land in the area has also been set up by the town as of last week, though no DEQ permit allowing land application has yet been issued.

“As a temporary stop-gap measure they’re going to be doing land application and they do have to get a permit to construct that apparatus, which will allow them to land apply, temporarily,” said Jennier Boyle, deputy general counsel for DEQ.

The town has been looking to build a new wastewater treatment facility since at least 2016, and a permit was issued by DEQ in 2017 to allow discharge of treated wastewater from the yet-to-be-built facility into an unnamed creek flowing into Lake Eufaula. But thus far, no construction on the new facility has occurred.

The most recent consent order between DEQ and Carlton Landing requires the town’s water district to adhere to a schedule for building the wastewater treatment facility and requires construction on the facility to be complete by Oct. 1, 2020.

In the meantime, the order requires the water district to complete repairs on the liners of its sewage lagoons, which inspection reports show have been an ongoing issue for years.

Neither Carlton Landing Town Founder Grant Humphreys nor Mayor Joanne Chinnici returned messages by The Frontier seeking comment.

Daryl Nieto, chairman for Carlton Landing’s water district, told The Frontier that the water that had been discharged from the lagoons was mostly storm water that had flowed into the sewage system through cracks in pipes, manholes and other areas from rain events, rather than greywater from homes. Only 25 families live at Carlton Landing full time, he said.

“Just from a pure common-sense perspective, it’s pretty obvious that sewage is not what we’re really dealing with on the capacity of those lagoons, it’s rainwater for the most part,” Nieto said.

The water being discharged was, in some cases, tested for contaminants prior to being discharged from the lagoons with the blessing of DEQ.

“I guess you could say that (lagoon water being discharged into Lake Eufaula), but it was all with DEQ approval,” Nieto said. “The water would have to be tested and if it was within a certain range, we were allowed to discharge.”

Boyle denied that DEQ gave Carlton Landing the go-ahead to discharge water out of the lagoons and into the lake.

“Not at all,” Boyle said. “We would have never given them permission to bypass into the lake.”

“Oklahoma’s newest town”

The town of Carlton Landing, situated on the shores of Lake Eufaula, just north of the town of Eufaula. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier
Since 2007, Carlton Landing has been a vision of Grant Humphreys, an Oklahoma City developer and real estate investor, when he and his father — former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, visited the lake house Kirk’s father Jack Carlton Humphreys had purchased in the early 1970s.

Though Kirk Humphreys’ initial idea was to buy an 800-acre tract in the area near their lake home to build an airstrip, The Oklahoman’s Steve Lackmeyer reported, Grant was able to lobby his father to invest in the area in an entirely different way — a new, planned community based on the philosophy of New Urbanism and unlike any other town in the state.

The Humphreys purchased 1,600 acres on the shores of Lake Eufaula, and famed architect and urban planner Andres Duany, who had designed other master planned communities such as Seaside, Fla.,  and Rosemary Beach, Fla., was brought on board to lead the team that would design what would eventually become Carlton Landing.

In 2010, infrastructure development began at Carlton Landing, and the following year, homes were being built, with an eye to eventually have around 3,000 houses in the town. In 2013, Carlton Landing was incorporated as “Oklahoma’s newest town,” with a mayor, board of trustees, a water district, and a population of 56, including town founder Grant Humphreys and his family. It is also home of the state’s first rural charter school.

“It was our desire that Carlton Landing would be seen as a model for new development, the kind that conserves our natural assets, provides a boost to rural economies and creates great places for people to live, work, create and play,” Humphreys said during his testimony in May 2017 before the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

By the time building on the homes first began in 2011, Carlton Landing’s designers had planned to dispose of waste water by using a series of total retention lagoons lined with synthetic liner to prevent leakage into the soil, according to engineering documents submitted to DEQ by Carlton Landing’s planners.

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Total retention lagoon systems treat wastewater by receiving household waste water, usually after passing through a septic tank, and holding it within the lagoon system for treatment by sunlight, wind and temperature. Though some lagoons can discharge water by applying the water to land – usually through a sprinkler-like system, Carlton Landing’s lagoon system is not yet permitted to do so, according to DEQ.

Work on the town’s wastewater system was halted in 2011, however, after DEQ inspectors discovered waste water lines that had been laid without a permit and failure to properly space water, waste water and utility lines. A consent order was issued by DEQ in late 2011, and work resumed.

Original plans for the town’s lagoon system, constructed in 2012, called for the initial building of three lagoon cells to provide sewage service to the first 73 homes built, though it could service up to 115 homes, DEQ documents show. During the second phase of the town’s construction, during which another 83 homes would be added, the lagoon system was planned to have an additional two lagoon cells added, larger than the first three, to accommodate the additional sewage requirements. The second two lagoon cells could provide service for an additional 135 homes, according to DEQ records.

Currently, Carlton Landing has around 260 homes, with many more under construction.

The two additional lagoons were never built.

Satellite view of Carlton Landing, and its three sewage lagoons northeast of the town’s center. COURTESY/Google Maps

Rather, by 2016 the town was looking at building a wastewater treatment facility that could treat a much larger volume of waste water, and discharge the treated waste water into an unnamed creek that feeds into Lake Eufaula.

The town’s water district applied for and was granted a permit to discharge treated wastewater from the proposed new facility, estimated to cost around $1.5 million, by DEQ in early 2017, but the facility has thus far not been constructed — nor have acceptable engineering plans for the facility been submitted to DEQ.

“It (the lagoon system) is currently undersized, but the consent order has them under the order with a schedule to build a wastewater treatment plant that will be adequate,” DEQ’s Boyle said.

Nieto, Carlton Landing’s water board chairman, said the current lagoon system is capable of handling the waste water produced by the 25 families living full-time in the town and more, and the issue is storm water pouring into the system.

“What originally happened was our lagoons are reaching capacity much quicker than what they were engineered to do,” Nieto said. “So it made it appear we were overbuilt out here and the lagoon system we have couldn’t handle the houses that were already out here.”

Rather, Nieto said, the hilly terrain leaves many of the trenches being dug backfilled with rocks and gravel, unintentionally creating a large “French drain” type system that causes storm water to roll into cracks in pipes, manholes and other access points into the sewer system. Thus, most of the water gathering in the sewer lagoons comes from rainwater.

Testing of the water in the lagoon system for fecal coliform and e. coli showed “we were within one or two hundredths of what the lake was testing at,” Nieto said. “The water that was being released was almost just as clean as the water in the lake.”

Most of the issues with storm water flowing into the system have been repaired within the last few weeks, ahead of the consent order’s timeline, Nieto said.

“We’re taking this thing by the horns and doing what we can with what we have right now,” he said. “Just fixing the I&I issues we had reduced our inflow by about 30 percent overnight. We’re already operating better than we were two months ago.”

The planned new water treatment facility will allow a much higher volume of waste water to be treated, Nieto said, but its construction may cause an increase in water rates for Carlton Landing residents.

“We will have to increase rates to cover the expense of that stuff, but those rates will eventually go down because the sewer plant we’re going to bring in can handle eight times what our current lagoon system can,” Nieto said.

Meanwhile, Carlton Landing has also been developing attractions on nearby leased U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land.

Between 2008 and 2011, Humphreys and other developers worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the shoreline of the lake, to try and get a zoning variance to allow for walking trails and access to Lake Eufaula, among other things.

But there was a problem — there could be no development at the site because no environmental impact study had been completed since the late 1970s, and no federal money had been set aside for the Corps to do one.

By 2010, “it appeared our vision for Carlton Landing was dead in the water,” Humphreys told Congress.

However, Sen. Jim Inhofe was able to put political pressure on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Tulsa to begin the required environmental impact study, which was completed in 2013, Humphreys said in his testimony.

“In March of 2011, Senator Inhofe met directly with the Tulsa District Commander,” Humphreys said. “Within days we saw a new tone. Forward motion was realized, and Corps staff was now on a new mission to update the Eufaula EIS.”

Grant Humphreys testifies before the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure on May 9, 2017. COURTESY

In 2015, the Corps of Engineers, which controlled about 10 miles of shoreline around Carlton Landing, agreed to lease 420 acres of nearby Corps property to Carlton Landing to develop nature trails, a sports arena, a marina, cabins and camp sites, nature center and other projects to be completed by 2020.

“While it’s true we’ve had success with the Corps., the journey to get here has been anything but easy,” Humphreys testified to Congress. “Unfortunately, our success came only after direct, top-down political pressure from the highest levels in Washington. Without a forceful hand of political involvement to unfreeze the process and to create a door of opportunity, I believe that our efforts would continue to bear no fruit.”

Bypasses

Ten days after Humphreys testified before Congress, on May 19, 2017, heavy rainfall caused an unknown amount of water to spill out from the northeast corner of Carlton Landing’s No. 3 sewage lagoon, according to a DEQ report filed by the water district.

It was the first recorded “bypass” of water from the lagoon, DEQ records state. But it would not be the last.

For years, DEQ records show, Carlton Landing and DEQ were aware of issues with the lagoon system and flows of storm water into the waste water system. As early as 2014, DEQ inspectors noted the No. 2 lagoon had no synthetic liner to prevent water from seeping into the ground or out of the lagoon system, erosion of the dike around the No. 3 lagoon, and storm water filling the No. 3 lagoon.

In 2015, DEQ inspectors cited the water district saying it needed to address issues with storm water washing into its wastewater system through manholes, erosion of the lagoon walls and through other collection systems. Numerous times thereafter, the inflow of storm water into the system — referred to as “I&I Issues” — were cited as repeated, unaddressed violations of DEQ requirements, documents show.

On Aug. 25, 2017, DEQ personnel performed an inspection of the town’s waste water system. The inspectors found that the facility was not being operated in accordance with its permit. The No. 3 lagoon’s was completely filled with water, and water was flowing over the lagoon’s dike in some areas, including the lagoon’s northeast corner, a few hundred feet uphill from Lake Eufaula, DEQ records state. The “bypass” had not been reported to DEQ.

Other findings by DEQ during that inspection include:

  • The second lagoon did not have a synthetic liner — an issue first reported by DEQ inspectors in 2014 but which had never been addressed — allowing seepage from the lagoon.
  • Multiple holes and tears in the synthetic liner of the third lagoon below the water line, allowing for seepage.
  • An unpermitted wastewater lift station serving a bathroom and food trucks.
  • Discharge of groundwater from a manhole vault into a creek and directly into Lake Eufaula.
  • A partially operational flow meter.
  • Uncontrolled access to the lagoons, with only a barbed wire fence and open gates.
  • Erosion around manholes around the town, allowing storm water to drain directly into the sewage collection system.
  • Failure to address the bypass and Infiltration and Inflow issues with the system.

DEQ gave Carlton Landing until Sept. 11, 2017 to fix the issues. But upon a return visit, inspectors found very little had been done to correct most of the problems, DEQ records show. The following month, DEQ issued the water district a Notice of Violation.

When DEQ inspectors returned on Dec. 6, 2017, more of the issues had been addressed, but some of the major ones — no liner in the second lagoon, holes and tears in the liner of the third lagoon, not enough space between the top of the waterline and the top of the dike in the third lagoon, and infiltration and inflow problems in manholes around the town — had not.

DEQ personnel began to discuss the terms of a consent order with Carlton Landing. On Feb. 17, 2018, Carlton Landing agreed to the terms of a consent order proposed by DEQ, though the consent order would not be officially filed until April 2.

Under the terms of that consent order, DEQ required the Carlton Landing water district to:

  • Immediately take steps to eliminate and prevent bypasses from its lagoon system.
  • Continue recording daily flow and rainfall data to submit to DEQ
  • Begin conducting a sanitary sewer evaluation survey, including inspecting each manhole in the system by May 1, 2018.
  • Submit the findings and a summary of the sanitary sewer evaluation survey, along with a map of the system showing the location and condition of each manhole, and a location of any deficiency found in the system by Aug. 15, 2018.
  • Repair or replace the synthetic lagoon liners by Sept. 15, 2018.
  • Submit an engineering report for the proposed new wastewater treatment facility by June 1, 2018.
  • Submit approvable plans and specifications for the proposed new wastewater treatment facility as well as an application for a construction permit for the facility by Aug. 1, 2018.

Though DEQ could have assessed fines of up to $10,000 per-day, per-violation, the Carlton Landing water district was assessed an $8,400 fine — $3,400 of which would be waived if it paid $5,000 within 30 days of the consent order’s filing on April 2.

But between the time the consent order terms were agreed to in mid-February and the effective date of the consent order on April 2, the Carlton Landing Rural Water District intentionally pumped approximately 3 million gallons of water out of its sewage lagoons and into Lake Eufaula.

The consent orders

On March 7, 2018, Carlton Landing’s water district began pumping water out of the sewer lagoons and onto the neighboring U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property to the east, which flowed into Lake Eufaula a few hundred feet downhill from the lagoons, DEQ records state.

Water would not stop being pumped from the lagoon for four days, draining approximately 3 million gallons out of the No. 3 sewage lagoon.

Carlton Landing was also pumping water out of the No. 2 lagoon at the same time, but did not report it to DEQ, a later report by a DEQ inspector stated. The bypass report by Carlton Landing states that the water district took samples of the water and tested for both e. coli and fecal coliform, neither of which were detected.

The reason listed on the DEQ report form for the bypass was “controlled bypass to remove rainwater and avoid future uncontrolled bypass.” A subsequent inspection report by DEQ personnel on March 21, 2018, said the water was pumped out “to provide storage capacity.” Weather records show that the area received significant rain in late-February 2018, but had received less than a tenth of an inch in March prior to the four days the lagoon water began to be pumped out.

Records show the area was treated with lime afterwards.

According to a report submitted to DEQ afterwards, the Carlton Landing water district notified DEQ a few hours beforehand that it would be performing the bypass.

After pumping the water out, the March 21 DEQ inspection report showed that the third lagoon now had three feet of “freeboard” — the term used to describe the distance between the surface of the lagoon’s water and the top of the lagoon’s dike — and the second lagoon had five feet of freeboard. DEQ regulations require at least three feet of freeboard.

For the next five months, there was only one issue reported to DEQ with the system — on May 26, a pump in a lift station had failed, causing between 5,000 and 10,000 gallons of raw sewage to spill from the lift station, flow through the beach area and into Lake Eufaula.

Then, beginning on Sept. 23, 2018, Carlton Landing’s water district began draining partially treated water the third sewage lagoon into an unnamed creek flowing into Lake Eufaula north of the lagoons, DEQ records show. The reason listed for the bypass: “Lagoon was close to breaching.” Rain was also listed as a contributing factor. Neither the total amount drained, nor the duration of the bypass were reported.

Three months later, on Dec. 31, more water was drained from the lagoon, though the duration and amount of the bypass was not listed in DEQ documents.

The most recent bypass of Carlton Landing’s lagoon system was last week, according to a DEQ spokeswoman.

It was not until Nov. 11, 2018 that DEQ received a copy of the sanitary sewer evaluation survey from Carlton Landing, according to DEQ records.

The water district had submitted to DEQ an engineering report for the new facility on May 9, but DEQ issued a notice of deficiency shortly afterwards, and no revised report had been sent back to DEQ as of mid-March, records show.

The rest of the requirements of the 2018 Carlton Landing consent order were not completed, according to DEQ.

In December, representatives from Carlton Landing told DEQ that they were working on a revised engineering report for the proposed wastewater treatment facility and negotiating with a contractor to address the issues identified in the sanitary sewer evaluation survey, DEQ records state. But by mid-January 2019, DEQ was proposing another consent order.

The case was transferred from DEQ’s environmental complaints and local services division to its Water Quality division, because of possible violations of the federal Clean Water Act, Boyle said.

The DEQ consent order issued last week, March 21, states that the Carlton Landing rural water district not only violated the terms and compliance schedule of the permit issued for its proposed wastewater treatment facility, but state laws that prohibit discharging waste water without a permit and causing “pollution of any waters of the state.”

The new consent order requires the Carlton Landing water district to:

  • Continue to record daily flow and rainfall totals to submit to DEQ.
  • Submit an approvable construction schedule for repairs of the deficiencies found in the sanitary sewer evaluation survey by May 1.
  • Submit an approvable engineering report for the new wastewater treatment facility by May 1.
  • Submit approvable plans and specifications for the new wastewater treatment system, as well as a construction application for the system, by Aug. 1.
  • Begin construction on the new facility by Feb. 1, 2020.
  • Complete all construction on the system by Oct. 1, 2020.
  • Submit an approvable lagoon closure plan for the total retention lagoon system by Oct. 1, 2020.
  • Attain three consecutive months of compliance under the new wastewater treatment system’s discharge permit by June 1, 2021.

The DEQ also assessed a $62,875 penalty against the Carlton Landing water district, though it would only have to pay $39,275 if the payment is made within 60 days and the requirements in the order are met.

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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