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Oklahoma’s Drinking Water Problems, Then and Now

This is not a good news post. Last year I experimented with Connexions publishing a collection of essays by Frank G. Speck on life in Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory (=Oklahoma before statehood). Among these essays was a piece titled “Observations in Oklahoma and Indian Territory.” Like me, I think Speck loved Oklahoma but also understood that the state’s problems, both their causes and their potential solutions, would need to be spoken of honestly. Describing the region at a time in which almost no Americans knew anything about it, he spoke about the problem of clean drinking water. He wrote:

In most parts of the territories a fairly healthy atmosphere prevails, except in the timbered and swampy tracts. Noxious insects are everywhere more abundant than welcome, and venomous snakes are not unknown. The chief hygienic drawbacks are, however, the poor water and the lack of town drainage. It is a fact, although hotly disputed by those who have interests at stake, that the water of at least three-fourths of the entire region is totally unfit for human consumption. Most of it is offensive to both nose and mouth, the physical attestation of which fact is the appearance of those who use it. As to town drainage, I will only state that in the western section of Indian Territory the shallowness of the surface soil makes it impossible to have refuse pits of sufficient depth for decency, and even where this does not hold true the consistency of the turf impedes the drainage of fluids to such an extent that in places a pit will hold water about as well as a vessel. The difficulty is increased by the levelness of the land. See: http://cnx.org/content/m22434/latest/

I was reminded of Speck’s observation when reading the following news report from today (September 7, 2010). This report describes the health consequences of drinking the water in exactly the same part of the state (the Cross-Timbers region) about which Speck was writing in particular. Here are two excerpts from the whole story. Such stories have long been common news items in Oklahoma.

Nearly 140 public water supplies are operating in consistent violation of state and federal drinking water codes, pumping water containing chemicals linked to cancer, infant illness, and damage to the liver and nervous system.
Arthur Platt with Logan County Rural Water District No. 2 said he knew something had to change when his customers started coming to the water district office for bottled water. “The things in the water weren’t good for you,” said Platt, who’s worked for the water district since 1986. The district pumps water to areas in and around Cashion and Crescent. Platt said the water started testing high for nitrates in 2001. The compound is naturally occurring and leaches into the water supply from manures and fertilizers. “They can hurt pre-born babies, older people, and result in blue babies,” Platt said. “So we had to start giving people bottled water if they wanted it.” Blue baby syndrome is the result of a baby’s blood not being able to carry enough oxygen. Excessive nitrates in drinking water can even kill infants. Read the full story here: http://www.newsok.com/many-oklahoma-water-providers-told-to-clean-up-their-supply/article/3492219#ixzz0yqYSTrgO
Oklahoma is a beautiful place. While its history is more tragic than it should have been, it is a place rich in cultural heritage and cultural diversity. People there deserve for life to be better than it is. There are many great people working to make the state a better place, but deep problems persist, in part, because some of the state’s leaders would rather deny the existence of long-term structural problems rather than acknowledge and address them. The state’s congressional delegation and senators exemplify the problem, but it is characteristic of all levels of government, as well as in civil society.
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