Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn and Democrat Rep. Dan Boren and their Arkansas colleagues sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking an "evenhanded'' approach on Oklahoma's water quality standard and its impact on its neighbor to the east.
That action has sparked disappointment from those who have worked for years to protect the Illinois River and even fear it may represent a step back in those efforts.
Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson termed it unfortunate, recalling the hard work needed to establish a phosphorus standard for the river.
"The damage is being done in Oklahoma,'' Edmondson said. "We contend that a large portion of it comes from Arkansas. I understand their not caring. I can't understand our not caring.''
As attorney general, Edmondson sued several Arkansas poultry firms in 2005, alleging that overuse of poultry litter as crop fertilizer had caused pollution in the watershed. The state claimed poultry litter runoff from fields is believed to cause increased levels of phosphorus to enter the watershed, which causes excessive algae growth.
Edmondson said the water quality standard sought by Oklahoma was vetted all along the way.
"It had very strong scientific support that this was necessary to protect the river,'' said Edmondson, who remains a member of a nonprofit group, Save the Illinois River (STIR), a nonprofit group chartered in part to protect the river.
STIR responded to the Dec. 9 letter from the Oklahoma and Arkansas members of Congress with a letter of its own to the EPA.
"The fact that Arkansas lawmakers oppose Oklahoma's water quality standards for the Illinois River watershed is not a surprise,'' STIR stated in its Jan. 2 letter, adding their state's politicians and developers have lobbied EPA, Congress and Oklahoma agencies in an effort to weaken the phosphorus limit due to become effective in July.
"However, the support now shown by Oklahoma's senators and congressmen for these opponents is a great source of disappointment to us,'' STIR wrote.
"We must know who is polluting the Illinois River watershed and from where the pollution is coming.''
STIR also expressed concern that an effort may be under way to prolong the EPA study, which it believes should have been completed years ago.
It also used its letter to remind the EPA that Oklahoma's lawsuit with Arkansas poultry companies had yet to be settled.
Members of the Oklahoma delegation defended signing onto the letter to the EPA, which was spearheaded by Arkansas Republican Sen. John Boozman and also signed by Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Steve Womack.
Inhofe, a major player on environmental issues in Congress as the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, expressed pride in his record of looking out for the interests of Oklahomans, "especially on oversight of the EPA.''
He said the ongoing effort by the EPA is to develop an overarching decision-making tool for the river.
"I believe everyone can agree that it is imperative that we provide appropriate oversight of this process,'' he said, adding the EPA must devote enough resources to the project and allow it to be fully vetted and tested before it is completed.
"We have seen what happens when EPA gets it wrong, and I will ensure that it doesn't happen in Oklahoma,'' Inhofe said.
Boren agreed the EPA has overstepped its bounds in the past.
"We want to ensure that any regulation of the Illinois River watershed does not place an unnecessary burden on local economies,'' he said.
Coburn did not comment.
Original Print Headline: Lawmakers' letter to EPA raises fears for Illinois River