Oklahoma’s Solid Waste Problem

For as long as anyone can remember, humans have struggled to consciously address proper solid waste management and environmental health. In America, early colonies allowed rodents to clean street garbage. Oceans, lakes, and rivers were common places for waste dumping. Westward expansion, along with economic and technological advancements, boosted the accumulation of garbage across the nation. And perhaps not surprisingly, open dumping continued to be the common way of dealing with solid waste into the 20th century.

It wasn’t until 1965 when the Federal Government felt the need to address solid waste dumping and passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA). SWDA allowed the government to assist cities and states to develop and implement waste disposal programs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1976 to implement and enforce environmental health and safety regulations provided through federal government funding. Through the years, states and small governing bodies have taken action against solid waste disposal problems, thus raising public awareness. Yet despite these efforts, Oklahoma is plagued by contaminant leachates from solid waste that threaten water sources and are breeding grounds for disease. Illegal solid waste dumping continues to contaminate Oklahoma water sources for communities and farms while destroying the landscape and creating a breeding ground for diseases.

Cram, George. Oklahoma Territory.1902.Survey map. Archives.gov. U.S. National Archive and Records Administration.

Cram, George. Oklahoma Territory.1902.Survey map. Archives.gov. U.S. National Archive and
Records Administration.

Initially, solid waste dumping in rural areas of North America wasn’t considered a problem. The vast open terrain of Oklahoma offered the promise of quick disposal of solid waste. Prior to statehood in 1907, Oklahoma solid waste disposal didn’t even exist. Federal jurisdiction didn’t extend into Oklahoma territory. Granted, cities and towns were authorized to establish and enforce laws or statutes that ensured community health and safety. Waste disposal fell under a nuisance statute stating that if solid waste became a nuisance, it was unlawful, but most people studying the issue knew this wasn’t enough. After statehood, Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) was developed. The OSDH began to administer and expand statutes for control of water contamination and disease. For instance, one specific statute was directed towards veterinarians in disposal of carcasses. It requires “The State Veterinarian to dispose of diseased animal carcasses in such manner as will, in his judgment, best protect the health of the domestic animals of that locality.” The first statutes have long since been expanded. The current Pollution Prevention Plan states,

  1. Dead animals shall be disposed of in accordance with a carcass disposal plan developed by the applicant or licensee and approved by the Department.
  2. The plan shall include provisions for the disposal of carcasses associated with normal mortality, with emergency disposal when a major disease outbreak or other emergency results in deaths significantly higher than normal mortality rates and other provisions which will provide for a decrease in the possibility of the spread of disease and prevent the contamination of waters of the state (Title 2, Agriculture).

Several other statues were established for public safety. Fire companies, for instance, were directed to construct safe locations to deposit ash. Designated dumping sites were developed leading into World War I, and landfills became the central locations for garbage and were usually placed outside the city limits. Private owners in rural areas collected fees to allow dumping on their lands. Nevertheless, solid waste management continued to be ignored after WWI and through the 1920s.

Weisiger, Marsha L. “Immigration Camps.” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma & Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society. 2007.

Weisiger, Marsha L. “Immigration Camps.” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma & Culture. Oklahoma
Historical Society. 2007.

Other unforseen circumstances contributed to solid waste dumping problems into the 1930s. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl devastated Oklahoma. Economic collapse and over-farming landscapes turned the public’s attention to landfills. Families traveled from the rural areas of the state to the capital, Oklahoma City, in search of jobs. Shanty towns sprouted near dumps and landfills, housing hundreds of people. One shanty town homed up to 6oo families. Buildings were constructed from used cardboard, tin, and rubbish found in the landfills. The term “Trashing” described rummaging through trash heaps to scavenge food, scraps, and sellable or reusable items. Because citizens feared that the shanty towns would breed disease, a federally funded program implemented change to address health issues within the shanty towns; yet, solid waste dumping increased as a result, and proper solid waste management remained in the shadows of economic and environmental change.

Solid waste disposal made almost no progress statewide for quite some time. It wasn’t until the 1970s when legislation on the Oklahoma Solid Waste Management Act (OSWMA) was passed. The statute dictated regulations to protect the public health and welfare, prevent water/air pollution to prevent the spread of disease and nuisances, conserve natural resources, and enhance the beauty of the environment. Under OSWMA, local governments were allowed to do the following: develop waste programs; utilize private investors; collect federal, state, and private funds; and require permits for every solid waste establishment. Incredibly and unfortunately, up until the Oklahoma Controlled Industrial Waste Disposal Act (OCIWDA) in 1976, hazardous waste was considered as solid waste. A solid waste disposal site near Criner, Oklahoma began receiving hazardous waste in 1972, and no extra precautions were taken during the site’s operations. The OCIWDA ceased operations, and the location later became a Superfund in 1983, developed and funded by the EPA, but by this time, considerable damage had already been done to the region.
Ironically enough, our march into the future promises as many complications as remedies—technological, economic, and social advancements through the 20th century have introduced new solid waste products. True, the development of faster, more capable vehicles for transportation brings more opportunities for progress. The downfall is the solid waste produced. Landfills didn’t accept tires due the inability to compact. Roadside ditches and ravines became common places for tire dumping. Oklahoma Legislation passed the Oklahoma Waste Tire Recycling Act (OWTRA) in 1989 to address tire waste problems. OWTRA allowed for landfills to be cleaned, funding to be collected, and a management system to be implemented to oversee operations. The executive director of the Department of Environmental Quality reported in 2007 that 4.6 million tires have been recovered since 1990 from illegal waste dumping sites and 350,000 tires still remain. The tire recycling act was the first of many successful environmental programs Oklahoma established.

Progress in waste management began to improve in Oklahoma in several important ways. Proper identification, authorization, and management systems monitored solid waste material. The Oklahoma Environmental Quality Act, passed in 1993, bequeathed environmental responsibilities to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Through the act, DEQ addressed the need for environmental health and safety. DEQ administers programs, provides assistance, and develops projects dedicated to cleaning the environment from air/water pollution, solid waste, and hazardous waste. Of equal or greater significance, the Oklahoma Uniform Environmental Permitting Act, established in 1994, allowed for the public to be involved with environmental safety. This legislation states,

It is the intent of the Oklahoma Legislature that the Oklahoma Uniform Environmental Permitting Act provide for uniform permitting provisions regarding notices and public participation opportunities that apply consistently and uniformly to applications for permits and other permit authorizations issued by the Department of Environmental Quality (27A-2-14-101).

Generating a more conscious public was a step in the right direction. Communities needed easily accessible local landfills. The Oklahoma Brownfields Voluntary Redevelopment Act of 1996 allowed DEQ to approve plans, remedy activities, and implement clean-up measures for landfill sites. The development of this legislative act has helped to rehabilitate Oklahoma lands. Public awareness of illegal dumping and environmental health has improved noticeably in cities and economically healthy communities.

Unfortunately, expanding rural populations have contributed to illegal dumping. Stream beds, roadside ditches, and country properties are continuously spotted with garbage. Most dumping occurs late at night or before sunrise, and the consequences prove uniformly damaging for nearly everyone in the state in one way or another. Household trash and appliances provide food and shelter for animals that carry rabies, such as raccoons and skunks. Toxins and chemicals from oil and gas operations, abandoned vehicles, and appliances are spilled on to the ground, threating water sources for communities and livestock. Polluted riverbeds and lakes become breeding grounds for mosquitoes to spread disease. Perhaps most noticeably, roadside garbage spills onto the country roads, threatening the safety of drivers and costing local governing bodies funding for proper cleanup.

Cities and towns are becoming more unified in preserving Oklahoma lands. Oklahoma State University Cooperation Extension and Oklahoma State Department of Health offer programs and assistance with economic analysis and proper solid waste disposal. OSWA implemented and enforced several strategies to control open dumping. Fines for illegal dumping, rewards for assisting with identifying offenders, restrictions to merchandise sold within the state, and options for proper waste services through a tax improved some communities; yet, efforts by the state are limited. Larger cities and towns are able to enforce statutes and uphold environmental integrity with more success. Solid waste locations are distributed through populated area, providing shorter traveling and easier access. Rural communities solid dump sites are located farther apart. Lower populations in rural areas have less internal funding and guidance. Waste management is distributed to local authorities; County Commissioner, law enforcement, and residents to the areas work together to prevent illegal dumping. Governing bodies have to seek assistance through the state or Federal government funding.

It bears repeating that technological, economic, and social advancements have generated increasing volumes of solid waste throughout the Oklahoma landscape. Public and environmental health depends on clean water and disease control, which means that illegal open dumping must be confronted vigorously and prevented with prevailing dedication to produce tangible results within the next two decades. It is time to break from the old destructive ways of our predecessors, become more conscious of our health and environment, and properly dispose of solid waste.