By JOSH NEWTON
Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality officials confirmed Friday they will be looking into reports of illegal brush-burning at the Tahlequah Street Department’s facilities.
Several years ago, ODEQ issued a warning to the city after it discovered brush was illegally being burned at an old dumpsite. The city then began to send its brush collections to a landfill in Muskogee, which ultimately resulted in heated arguments among city officials about how to properly dispose of the debris.
The city eventually decided to purchase a wood chipper to try saving thousands of dollars in fees and fuel costs being spent to haul the debris to Muskogee. Councilors also established policies that dictate how city residents can properly dispose of their brush, which is collected by Tahlequah Street Department employees. An agreement was made with the Tahlequah Public Works Authority for the authority to take the chipped materials produced from the brush.
Concerns surfaced Friday morning when a local resident saw a brush pile going up in flames on the northeast corner of the street department facility’s property, near the intersection of Phoenix Avenue and Airport Parkway.
That resident took a photo and sent it to the Daily Press; and by Friday afternoon, a second resident had provided the Press with photos from two burns that reportedly took place earlier this month at the same location.
Street Commissioner Mike Corn did not return a request for comment by press time Friday.
Skylar McElhaney, a public information officer for the ODEQ, said no special permits have been granted to the city that would allow it to burn brush. ODEQ officials said they will send an environmental specialist to Tahlequah to investigate the issue.
Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols was made aware of brush-burning activities at the street department facility earlier this month. At that time, Nichols contacted ODEQ to ask for their help in warning the street department about burning brush. Nichols said he was told a formal complaint needed to be lodged.
“The [street] commissioner has been told repeatedly and publicly that this burning is not permissible,” said Nichols.
Corn recently told the city council that the street department’s new wood chipper malfunctioned and had to be sent off for repairs. Nichols believes the chipper is still being repaired, but said the city has the option of hauling brush to Muskogee while the machine is out of order.
Nichols said he spoke to Corn Friday afternoon and was assured the burning of brush will cease.