The River that Caught on Fire

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Today at work, we had Green Fest, and as part of the Green Team committee, I volunteered to help set up for the event. After my shift, I walked around the exhibits, and I stopped by the Blue Thumb booth. At first, I was just being friendly to our vendors because the Blue Thumb project focuses significantly on amphibious biology, which is not particularly interesting to me. However, I was astonished how it related to our everyday lives in Tulsa.

Blue Thumb is a not for profit organization that uses volunteers to wade in streams and collect samples of little larva, bugs, leaches, and other gross looking creatures to determine the health of the water. When the proportion of the species is disproportionate or some creatures are missing altogether, then Blue Thumb reports the findings the state, which appropriates money and effort to find the root cause of the problem and corrects it.

Much of the Blue Thumb project is education of the public, and this is where it became interesting for me. I did not know that storm drains drain directly into creeks and are not processed by water treatment plants. So, for example, it is bad to wash one’s car in the driveway because the soap runs directly into creeks and hurts fish. Commercial car washes, on the other hand, are required to collect their drainage, process it, and then dispose of it correctly where part of the waste is handled by solid waste management, and the liquid it tied into the water treatment plant. So, using a local car wash is not only more expensive but good for local economy and washes one’s car a little better because it provides warm water, but it’s also greener.

I was glad to hear that most of the streams in Tulsa metro area are in great shape, but the Arkansas River, which is out of scope of the Blue Thumb project due to dangerous conditions and bacteria, has room for improvements. However, the Arkansas River is significantly in better shape than it used to be in the 1970s when it was at its worst. All the refineries and industrial parks along the river, starting in Colorado, used the river as a trashcan. Things only first started to turn around when the Ohio River was so polluted that it actually caught on fire and burned for a week.

This prompted environmental laws on the matter. The refineries around Tulsa did start using a landfill instead of dumping for some waste instead of dumping everything into the river, but they put heavy metals and toxic waste into these landfills that were designed for municipal waste. Furthermore, the landfill was used for 10 years, instead of 4 years, as designed. Eventually, the landfill caught on fire inside of itself and smoldered indefinitely causing locals to complain from related illnesses. So, the waste was moved to a new location around Sand Springs and was sealed off. Yet, the new site has pipes coming out to allow the decomposing gases, which continue decompose to this day, to escape.

I may need to drive by there one time to check it out. I learned very interesting history today.

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