Among key topics at the 20th National Tar Creek Conference was an accidental release into Tar Creek in June causing a major fish kill and the recent expansion of poultry operation growth in northeast Oklahoma.

(Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series on the 20th National Tar Creek Conference. Read part one here: Huge progress, long way to go.)

MIAMI – The 20th National Tar Creek Conference was designed with the goal of education, discussion, activism and finding solutions to the diverse and complex environmental issues the community faces.

For years now the L.E.A.D. Agency has presented the opportunity to converge in Miami at these environmental conferences bringing together those who care and work to achieve a cleaner, healthier environment. For two days experts spoke on a variety of environmental issues highlighting coal ash spills, poultry wastes, water and climate pollution and the Tar Creek Superfund clean up and remediation.

One of the environmental issues faced in Miami this year occurred on Friday, June 26 when Tar Creek was polluted by a busted transfer line coming from J-M Farms causing a major fish kill.

“We had black water and dead fish,” L.E.A.D.’s Director Rebecca Jim said before presenting speaker J-M Farms Growing Operations Manager Scott Englebrecht with a t-shirt adorned with a design of fish created by local students. “It is our hope that we are also going to have these healthy fish again.”

J-M Farms, established in 1979 in Miami, now produces 27 million pounds of mushrooms a year, including composting, growing, packing and shipping, that is distributed in nine states, and employs 500 people, according to Englebrecht.

“We are fully invested in northeast Oklahoma,” Englebrecht said.

Oklahoma Secretary of the Department of Agriculture James Reese also addressed the incident at Tar Creek and answered questions and explained the environmental responsibilities, jurisdiction and authority of his office specific to this event. Reese said the J-M Farm case remains open at this time and is now in the hands of the legal department.

The Oklahoma Kill Response Management Team (OKRMT) responded to the spill and J-M Farms and other landowners cooperated fully, and were in constant communication, according to Reese.

“We work with all of our associated agencies. J-M Farms was an outstanding assistance and participant and helpful in cleaning it up and actually came up with their own ideas of how to clean up Tar Creek. We don’t like for these things to happen, but they just do, and so we dealt with it,” Reese said.

Reese and Englebrecht explained how the pollution of Tar Creek and fish kill event was caused by a broken transfer line coupling exposed by sunlight that eroded the PVC irrigation pipe causing it to break about three or four feet from a tributary, a drainage ditch that discharged into Tar Creek.

Englebrecht said he was notified of the fish kill on Facebook about six days after the break when it was finally noticed and took immediate action to look into the incident and report the event to authorities, which was confirmed by Reese.

J-M Farms notified ODEQ, and they followed the tributary from Tar Creek and located the break, and created a dam using dozers and backhoes to stop any additional flow. J-M Farms built a series of three berms to increase the holding capacity to keep additional rainwaters away from further contaminating Tar Creek. The dam remained in place for 28 days until cleanup was completed and the issue was rectified.

What spilled into the creek was an estimated 250,000 gallons of nutrient rich leachate run off collected from J-M Farm’s compost yard that is run through retention ponds until it is reapplied onto the compost at J-M Farms to grow mushrooms.

“It was a heavy nutrient load that emptied into Tar Creek,” Englebrecht said.

The cleanup effort first moved water from retention ponds by truck but with increased water from rainfall, 3.6 inches, this wasn't adequate enough, according to Eblebrecht. J-M then set up a series of pumps using 7,000 feet of hoses to return the retention water and flush water to J-M Farms using pond, well and rainwater.

Some 1.13 million gallons of water were put into holding ponds, and the significant rainfall in August caused some further concern, but J-M Farms was able to handle these events.

“There was some very concerning moments during that timeframe,” Englebrecht said. “I feel very proud of the fact that we were able to manage that. There were some late nights out watching the water rise, but fortunately, we were able to handle those rain events. I can confidently say we never had another drop back into that tributary.”

On July 23 testing allowed the dams to be removed.

Moving forward

To avoid future problems, the PVC pipe was replaced, J-M researched use of new piping with fewer and stronger joints, increased pump capacity to allow higher volumes to be used, and reduced volume by 30,000 gallons of groundwater used.

Englebrecht reported J-M Farms is currently testing aeration systems to improve air and water quality and reduce odors from the growing operation and is increasing monitoring frequency and location.

“What we’ve seen so far is it seems to be working, we’ve seen much improvement in the air quality around the holding basins,” he said.

Englebrecht assured the conference attendees that J-M Farms is working to ensure there is no additional harm from their operations to Tar Creek.

“We live work and play here, and so obviously we're invested in Miami. It's unfortunate that this event happened. We wish we could go back in time and prevent it from happening, but what we can do now is ensure it doesn’t happen again, or do the best that we can. Nobody can guarantee everything, but we’re going to do the best that we can. We feel proud of our record in environmental stewardship.” he said. “ …We're as upset as anyone else is that this happened. But I think if we can look at the bright spot of this deal it’s going to make us an even better neighbor and do a better job of ensuring environmentally we do no harm.”

According to Reese, the Oklahoma Agriculture Department environmental staff has turned the J-M Farm case over to the legal staff for further processing.

Englebrecht said J-M Farms would possibly also be interested in any potential further studies and treatment programs, such as fish restocking programs. He said J-M Farms uses 10,000 tons of chicken manure and wheat straw in their mushroom growing process.

Englebrecht took and answered questions about the incident and other operational questions.

“There’s not a lot of research we've found that arsenic carries over into the mushrooms,” he responded when asked about research into this issue.

J-M produces 100 wet tons a day of spent compost, and roughly 75 percent of this bi-product is made into garden compost and distributed throughout the Midwest, according to Englebrecht.

Poultry processing

Reese addressed concerns about the recent expansion of poultry operation growth in northeast Oklahoma. He said Oklahoma's Governor has called together a coordinating council for poultry growth to discuss issues of concern and solutions to improve the industry and ensure environmental protection, according to Reese.

Meetings have been held in the area, specifically Delaware County to begin a discussion of solutions to improve the growth of the poultry industry in Oklahoma.

“We are not inviting necessarily activists. We are inviting actual people who live there who are actually living next to one of the new farms and are not necessarily happy about it So, we’re inviting people who are actually there and are affected and are concerned,” Reese said.

Getting accurate answers to questions of concerns about new poultry operations and feedback from those directly affected is important to understanding the issues, according to Reese.

“I'm just saying when we had the community meetings we had a lot of people who weren't from there. So, we invited the people from there,” he said.

One audience member said the concerns and potential consequences of large poultry operations are farther reaching than of just those living on neighboring properties.

“We’re going to have people who are knowledgeable about all of the areas and we’re going to do the best we can to be thorough, reasonable and understanding,” Reese said. “So, we’re trying to take everyone’s concerns into consideration and we’re not turning anyone away, just not everybody gets to come.”