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GARBAGE: The Black Sheep of the Family

A Brief History of Waste Regulation in the United States and Oklahoma

By Jon Roberts, Land Protection Division

If a song were written that metaphorically compared the amount of time and money provided for solid waste management systems over the years to that provided for its big brothers, water and wastewater systems, it might go something like: "Big brother went to college and became a doctor man. I guess he makes about a million dollars a year off the folks' own insurance plan. He's got a big, long Mercedes Benz and a house overlooking the town. He sits in his Jacuzzi and watches the sun go down. And he feels real sorry for me, I'm the black sheep of the family."1 Fortunately, waste management systems are finally losing their historical status as the black sheep of the public services family.

As Oklahoma celebrates its Centennial in 2007, it is interesting to review the evolutionary process that resulted in today's comprehensive waste management regulatory framework. While Oklahoma is relatively young, having been the 46th state admitted to the Union, it has been a leader in developing laws related to environmental protection since the early 1970s when environmental protection came to the forefront of public concern. The ultimate goal for our state is quite simple--a clean, attractive, prosperous Oklahoma. 

Not surprisingly, garbage has been an issue since at least 10,000 BC when humans began moving away from their nomadic habits to establish primitive societies. The increased population densities resulted in more waste being concentrated in a smaller area.2 In North America, archaeological studies have demonstrated that Native Americans, in what is now Colorado, may have produced an average of 5.3 pounds of waste per person per day in approximately 6,500 BC.3 In approximately 500 BC, Athenians developed one of the first municipal disposal sites in the Western world and required citizens to dump their waste at least one mile from the city limits.4,5 Around AD 200, the Romans established an early form of garbage collection service where teams of two men would walk along the streets collecting garbage and tossing it into a wagon.6 The Mayan Indians of Central America (AD 200 - 900) had their own problems; their waste disposal sites would sometimes explode and burn. 7

Even for prehistoric Oklahoma, some knowledge of waste disposal practices can be gleaned from a study of the archaeological record if the record is evaluated in that context. For example, over two thousand years ago, a Native American culture lived in the caves and rock shelters of northeastern Oklahoma, Arkansas, and southwestern Missouri. In those caves and shelters, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of ancient kitchen refuse, mammal bones, gourds, pumpkin and melon seeds, and charred ears of corn.8 Such finds may suggest this prehistoric culture tended to simply leave their wastes in place, possibly because so little was generated that leaving it in place did not result in any problems.

To fully understand how Oklahoma reached its current waste regulatory environment, it is informative to review an overall history of waste management from a national perspective then see how Oklahoma's waste management laws developed in concert with national trends.

National Perspective

Nationally, waste management practices have evolved over time in response to two important factors: first, from a desire to protect public health, followed much later by a desire to protect the environment.9 A review of the history of waste management reveals that this evolutionary process can be divided into several relatively well-defined periods, each demonstrating a unique perspective for addressing waste management.

Pre-1800: "We've always done it this way."
Minimal sanitary regulations were common in the American colonies by the late 1600s. For instance, in 1634, Boston officials prohibited disposing of fish and garbage near the common landing. During the mid- to late-1600s, additional regulations were developed to address pollution of Boston Harbor.10

Even though disease was quite prevalent during the 1700s, little was known about the cause of disease in humans; therefore, it was not evident that a significant portion of disease could be attributed to the unsanitary conditions of the day. Consequently, government played a minimal role in the development of sanitary systems and during much of the 1700s, American cities remained relatively unsanitary.11

The major trades of the era (soapmakers, tanners, and butchers) showed little concern with the impact disposal of their extremely noxious wastes had on the citizenry and the environment. Household waste disposal practices were primarily mirror images of those in England. Garbage was burned or simply dumped into the streets, alleys, and waterways; swine freely roamed the streets.12 By the mid-1700s, American households, to a limited extent, began digging refuse pits for disposal of their household wastes, rather than throwing the garbage into the streets and alleys.13 However, even as late as 1800, visitors to New York City described some parts of the City as a "nasal disaster" because of odors reminiscent of "bad eggs dissolved in ammonia." 14

While government showed little interest in development of waste management systems, a few people took on the cause individually. For instance, in 1739, Benjamin Franklin and his neighbors unsuccessfully petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to stop waste dumping and remove tanneries from Philadelphia's commercial district. Mr. Franklin also instituted the first municipal street cleaning service in Philadelphia in 1757. 15

1800s: "We know water pollution contributes to disease, so we need to tell people they can't put their garbage in or around water."
Even though large portions of the country remained rural in nature, America gradually became more urbanized during the 1800s. Yet, in spite of increased urbanization and improved scientific knowledge of the correlation between filth and disease, solid waste management practices remained largely unchanged.

As late as the Civil War, pigs, goats, and stray dogs were free to roam the streets as "biological vacuum cleaners." In fact, the need to have animals available to eat the garbage was such a concern that Charleston, West Virginia enacted an ordinance in 1834 to prohibit vulture hunting because they ate the city's garbage!16 The concept of a "public nuisance" also came into being in the early 1800s in order to alleviate, among other things, the visual problems with, and inconvenience of, odors and rotting wastes in the streets and on private property.17

Dumping waste at sea in New York Harbor.

Figure 1. Dumping waste at sea in New York Harbor, a common practice in 1880s.

The seeds of change were sown in mid-1800s England where sanitation theory (the theory that filth could contribute to human illness) began gaining popularity and gradually making its way to America.18,19 To address increasing public health concerns, local governments began setting standards for the protection of human health. The nation's first public health code was enacted in New York City in 1866.

By the late 1800s, America had developed a rather significant industrial base and her cities were becoming more urbanized. Because the correlation between filth and disease had become much more of a scientific certainty, local governments slowly became more involved with addressing proper sanitation, though most efforts focused on water and wastewater systems rather than waste management systems. Furthermore, America's expanding industrial base led to additional problems of increasing amounts of industrial waste to dispose. However, change was not to come easily as local politics, costs, or general public apathy frequently thwarted attempts to establish local sanitation controls. In any event, by the late 1800s, the germ theory of disease, and its correlation to sanitary conditions, was reaching its peak largely due to three epidemics in the 1870s.20

A cholera epidemic in the Mississippi Valley in 1873 killed approximately 3,000 people, while New Orleans and Memphis were both struck with yellow fever epidemics. Then, in 1878, the South was struck with the worst yellow fever epidemic in the Nation's history. Due in large part to these epidemics, the federal government finally began to realize it should play a roll in ensuring sanitation, and created a National Board of Health in 1879.21

Prior to the 1890s, there was little local government effort to provide an organized system for waste collection and disposal. As the 19th Century ended, the need for such a collection system was becoming apparent primarily due to four public concerns. First, as cities grew and America became a more consumer-oriented society, household wastes, ashes, horse droppings, street sweepings, and general rubbish were becoming more overwhelming problems for cities and individuals to manage. Secondly, the danger to public health from unsanitary conditions was firmly established. Third, both citizens and politicians realized that a clean city would attract businesses and create jobs which would, in turn, improve local economies. Fourth, local government involvement in public sanitary services was already well-established with water supplies and sewage management systems. Garbage collection was a natural extension of public services, and increasingly, local citizens began demanding solutions.22

Early 1900s - 1945: "With World War I, the Roaring '20s, the Great Depression, and World War II, who has time to worry about garbage?"

Refuse collection wagon
Figure 2. Early 1900s refuse collection wagon.

During the first half of the 20th Century, the primary local government challenge with respect to sanitary services was adapting those services to increased urbanization, urban sprawl, and demand for improved services to rural communities. To address these issues, local government focus, both from engineering and financial standpoints, was primarily on water supply and sewage management. Waste management was still relegated to third-class status despite dramatic increases in the amount of solid waste generated. Furthermore, the first half of the 20th Century was dominated by two World Wars and the Great Depression. Even though the effects of the government's lack of focus on waste management became apparent during the years between World War I and World War II, government concern with waste collection and disposal took a back seat to the Depression and World War II. Thus, no substantial change to waste management practices was seen.23

After World War I, the Nation's economic recovery was astounding. Technical innovations, mass production techniques, easy credit, and increased wages translated into a consumer society and an expanding middle class through the Roaring '20s, with a concurrent increase in solid waste to be managed. Municipalities began to realize some sort of citywide waste collection and disposal service was needed and began providing such services. But, by the late 1920s, waste collection and disposal costs had soared in the wake of expanding city limits, forcing local governments to begin looking for ways to curb those costs. Focus, however, was directed toward contracting out such services and implementing mechanized collection rather than development of integrated waste management systems. During this period, municipalities began using transfer stations to centralize wastes and use larger vehicles, barges, and railroads to transport waste from the transfer station to a disposal site.24

While more waste was being generated and more efficiently managed during the interwar years, land disposal was still the primary method of final disposition. Many locations had the city or town "dump" where its waste was disposed. Though easy to construct and relatively cheap to operate, the dumps were generally located near rivers and streams, where liquids and refuse from the dumps could easily enter the water and threaten water supplies. In addition, they were extremely unsanitary, attracted vermin, gave off repugnant odors, and were fire hazards. It was not until 1929 that the federal government issued the first location restriction for disposal sites by recommending, but not requiring, dumps to be located away from river banks.25

From the beginning of the Great Depression to the end of World War II, various state laws and court rulings prohibited certain disposal practices. For instance, in 1934, the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling requiring New York City to cease disposal of its municipal waste at sea. In the 1930s, California passed laws prohibiting disposal of garbage within 20 miles of shore.26 While these actions may have helped remove refuse from the waters near America's shores, they did not address the real question, "What is the best way to manage solid waste?"

Interestingly, the concept of a "sanitary landfill" was being developed in Great Britain in the 1920s. The British called this practice "controlled tipping" from which the term "tipping fee" (the fee charged by landfill operators to dispose of waste at their facility) was probably coined. While open dumping had been practiced for years, the idea of a pseudo-engineered fill was quite unique. By alternating layers of waste and either soil or another non-putrefying material, the belief was that vermin populations, odors, and fires could be reduced, making land disposal less smelly and more "sanitary" and acceptable. The first modern "sanitary landfill" in the US built on the British design, began operation in Fresno, California in 1934. During the 1930s and '40s, momentum slowly shifted toward the use of sanitary landfills across the nation.27

Post-war Period - 1964: "With prosperity again, we really need to do something. But what?"
The post-war period in America was an era of unprecedented changes. World War II was over and America was largely untouched, the Baby Boom was on, and prosperity soared. New consumer goods made life easier: air conditioners kept our homes cool in the summer, central heat warmed us in the winter, electric refrigeration accelerated the development of pre-packaged, easy-to-prepare food, television introduced us to Lucy and Ricky, Detroit filled our desire for big, comfortable cars so we could travel on the new Interstate highway system, new pesticides and herbicides helped ensure bountiful crop yields and perfectly-manicured lawns, and our factories churned out everything we could consume. Urban sprawl increased as the new middle class moved to the suburbs. Concurrent with this new consumer society and increase in population was a drastic increase in the amount of solid waste generated.28 All of this waste had to be managed, leading municipalities to expand their collection efforts. To help cover the cost, new service charges and taxes were instituted.29

For most of the country, landfills continued to be the primary method for waste disposal. While collection and disposal responsibility rested primarily with local governments, cities were finding it increasingly difficult to manage the waste generated as populations, consumerism, and industry grew. Open dumps, with the resulting fires, odors, and vermin problems, were still in use in many locations. While it was becoming quite apparent that a national emphasis on waste management was needed, it was not until 1953 that any sort of recommended national guidelines for waste disposal sites were published. These guidelines were based, in part, on sanitary fill methods developed during World War II.30 Even with criteria in place, most of the nation was slow to adopt them. In 1956, only about 37% of the landfills in the country were making an effort to follow the guidelines.31

1965 - 1991: "It's time to change the focus of the waste management problem."
For 200 years, waste management concerns were addressed by answering the question, "What can't be done with garbage?" While answers to this question may have been adequate for a rural America, those answers were entirely inadequate to address increasing urbanization and the significant increases in solid waste to be managed. Because solid waste was here to stay, it was necessary for the nation to make a fundamental shift in its thinking by asking, "What can be done with garbage that will protect both health and the environment?"

Though the federal government had established a long history of oversight of water resources (e.g. the River and Harbor Act of 1886 and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948),32 it was not until 1965 that the federal government finally put the solid waste problem on par with protection of water resources. In that year, Congress passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA), the federal government's first effort to implement a comprehensive management framework for the nation's solid waste.33,34 The SWDA was designed to assist state and local governments with the technical and financial aspects of developing and managing waste disposal programs and to promote the development of guidelines for waste collection, transportation, recovery, and disposal.35,36 Amazingly, when the SWDA was passed, there were less than 10 full-time employees in state solid waste programs nationwide. Furthermore, no state had any real solid waste legislation; solid wastes were indirectly covered under health and nuisance statutes.37 Then, in 1970, Congress passed the Resource Recovery Act, shifting the emphasis of federal involvement from disposal to recycling, resource recovery, and conversion of waste to energy. It also stipulated that a national system for hazardous waste management be implemented.38,39 Also, in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was born. Solid waste management was now as great a national-level concern as water quality had been for many years.

In 1976, Congress expanded the federal government's roll in waste management by passing the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), to be implemented by EPA. The goals of RCRA were to protect the environment, conserve resources, and reduce the amount of waste being generated. RCRA was divided into various Subtitles, two of which dealt directly with waste management issues. Subtitle C required development of a comprehensive hazardous waste management scheme to ensure those wastes were safely managed from the moment they were generated until final disposal (affectionately known as "cradle-to-grave"). Subtitle D was designed to deal with disposal of non-hazardous wastes and ensure non-hazardous waste disposal sites were constructed in a manner to greatly reduce environmental impacts.40 

In 1980, in response to RCRA Subtitle C, EPA promulgated its first regulations for the management of hazardous waste. The regulations implemented several requirements: identification of solid and hazardous wastes, standards for generators of hazardous waste, standards for transporters of hazardous waste, standards for hazardous waste disposal facilities, and requirements that must be met to receive permits to operate a hazardous waste disposal facility. While specific details regarding the standards are well beyond the scope of this article, the standards clearly spelled out the cradle-to-grave management goal for hazardous waste.

In 1984, Congress amended RCRA by passing the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984 (HSWA). HSWA not only put into effect tough, new requirements for hazardous waste management and disposal, but also mandated that EPA develop criteria for new solid waste landfills to drastically reduce the likelihood that new Superfund sites would be created due to poorly constructed and operated landfills. Thus, in 1991 EPA promulgated a regulatory framework for the construction and operation of landfills receiving municipal solid waste. The criteria required all existing municipal waste landfills in the nation to either: (1) install a comprehensive groundwater and gas monitoring program, establish financial assurance to ensure funds were available for proper closure and monitoring after closure, and meet certain operational requirements; or (2) close. New landfills were required to be constructed with an engineered liner system capable of preventing landfill liquids from migrating into groundwater, in addition to implementing the groundwater and gas monitoring, financial assurance, and more stringent operational requirements. From a regulatory standpoint, the "open dump" was finally history.

1978 - 1980: "Uh, Washington? New York here. We have a problem."
Even with new federal authority over waste issues, one event would thrust historical waste management practices to the nation's attention as never before, demonstrating that the historical idea of "out of sight, out of mind" was not the best approach to waste management. Due almost entirely to this event, the federal government began taking an even greater role in environmental protection.

In 1836, the U. S. government was searching for a location to construct a canal between Lakes Erie and Ontario in upstate New York. The Government found an ideal location, but nothing came of the study until May 1892 when a gentleman named William Love took an interest in the site. Mr. Love's plan was to build an industrial city with cheap power provided by a canal connecting the upper and lower Niagara River. Unfortunately, financial problems resulted in Mr. Love abandoning the project, and the partially completed canal was sold in 1920. For over 30 years, the canal was the dumping ground for municipal garbage and chemical wastes from the City of Niagara, New York and surrounding municipalities. Finally, in 1953, the site was covered with soil and sold to the Niagara school system for one dollar.41,42

Over the ensuing years, a school and an entire neighborhood of private homes were built on top of and around the canal. Then, in 1978 after a record rainfall, toxic chemicals began to leak from the old canal into the yards and basements of the community. The Love Canal problem was thrust into the national spotlight as President Carter declared the entire area a disaster area, releasing emergency funds to evacuate the citizens.43

In 1980, directly in response to the Love Canal debacle, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, or more-commonly known as Superfund). Its purpose was to implement a national response for problems resulting from past hazardous waste management practices, to impose liability on those entities creating the problem, and to remediate contaminated soils and groundwater caused by those practices. CERCLA also imposed various taxes on chemical and petroleum industries, which were deposited into a trust fund (hence, the name "Superfund") to be used for remediations initiated under its provisions.

Oklahoma Perspective

Since regulations implementing RCRA Subtitle D were implemented in 1991, there have been no large-scale federal changes to the overall waste management regime implemented by the various federal statutes and EPA regulations. With this backdrop, we can now see how Oklahoma's waste management programs have evolved somewhat in tandem with the federal initiatives.

1890 - 1906: Oklahoma Territory.

Oklahoma State Capitol. c. 1915.
Figure 3. Oklahoma State Capitol. c. 1915.

Prior to statehood, as in most of the nation, waste disposal laws, per se, did not exist in Oklahoma. With only a few exceptions, waste issues were indirectly covered under general public nuisance statutes. In 1890 Oklahoma Territory, a public nuisance was defined as "a crime against the order and economy of the Territory, and consists in unlawfully doing any act or omitting to perform any duty required by the pubic good, which act or omission...[a]annoys or injures the comfort, repose, health or safety of any considerable number of persons; or [u]nlawfully interferes with, obstructs, or tends to obstruct, any lake, or any navigable river, bay, stream, canal, or basin, or any public park, square, street or highway..."44 Obviously, with such a broad definition, uncontrolled waste disposal could have been considered a public nuisance.


When statutes identified specific, prohibited disposal practices, they typically were directed toward prevention of water pollution or the spread of disease to animals or humans, rather than attempt to develop a comprehensive waste management protocol. For example, in Oklahoma Territory it was unlawful to:

  • "[throw] gas tar, or refuse of any gas house or factory into any public waters, river, or stream, or into any sewer or stream emptying into any such public water, river, or stream;"45

  • "[dispose] of any article of food, drink, drug, or medicine [known to be] tainted, decayed, spoiled, or otherwise unwholesome or unfit to be eaten or drank with intent [that the material be consumed] by any person or animal;"46

  • "put any dead animal, carcass, or part thereof, into any well, spring, brook, or branch of running water [used for] domestic purposes...[or] into any river, creek, or pond;" 47or

  • "put any dead animal or any part of a carcass of a dead animal in any road, street, alley, lane, lot, field meadow, common or school section, without burying [at least two feet deep]." 48

Territorial statutes also authorized incorporated cities and towns to determine what constitutes a public nuisance within their jurisdictions. Interestingly, only one waste material was specifically mentioned within the authorities granted to early cities and towns--ashes! Cities and towns were authorized to direct fire companies to construct a place for the "safe deposit of ashes."49

1907 - 1920s: Early Statehood.
After statehood in 1907, many of the same prohibitions found in the Territorial statutes were codified into the statutes of the State of Oklahoma and administered by the newly-created Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH). As various industries developed, statutes were further expanded to cover other specific issues, though they were still geared toward prevention of water pollution or the spread of disease. For instance, early state statutes required the State Veterinarian to dispose of diseased animal carcasses "in such manner as will, in his judgment, best protect the health of the domestic animals of that locality."50 It was also unlawful "to allow any unnecessary leak or waste to occur" from a natural gas pipeline, or to allow any "inflammable product from any oil or gas run into any tank, pool, or stream used for watering stock."51


1930s: The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl; many problems, but no real solutions.

Figure 4. Oklahoma City dump and adjacent hog farm, 1939.
Figure 4. Oklahoma City dump and adjacent hog farm, 1939.

Though little had changed in the years following statehood, by the end of the 1930s, the twin calamities of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl brought to light another, unexpected problem with a very human impact. Due to the loss of jobs and farms, many people came from rural areas of the state to Oklahoma City in search of odd jobs to earn a meager wage for their families. Sadly, one of the few places where these people were allowed to live was near the Oklahoma City dump, which was located in the North Canadian River floodplain in the vicinity of South May Avenue. They built a shanty town called Mays' Avenue Camp, and a population of several hundred lived up and down the river for several miles. A hog farm was located next to the dump. "Trashing" in the dump was a frequent method of gathering a few scraps of food or to find something of value that might be sold or used in the home.52 The existence of shanty towns near the dump was a problem far from unique to Oklahoma or Oklahoma City during this period.


Maye's Ave. Camp, OKC 1939.
Figure 5. A portion of the Mays' Avenue Camp, Oklahoma City, OK, 1939.

1940s - 1960s: Change comes slowly

City of Oklahoma City waste collection department, 1933.
Figure 6. City of Oklahoma City waste collection department, 1933.

Through many of the following decades, as in the rest of the nation, Oklahoma laws did not make any real progress toward development of a comprehensive waste management regime. However, this began to change in 1963 when the Legislature enacted the Oklahoma Public Health Code, to be administered by OSDH. This legislation included Oklahoma's first, broad-based solid waste disposal restriction that was not directed specifically toward protection of surface waters or preventing the spread of disease. The legislation stated it was "unlawful for any person to dump, deposit, throw or in any manner leave any garbage, tin cans, bottles, rubbish, refuse or trash on property owned by another person" without the permission of the land owner and permission of the local health officer.53 Then, in 1969, the OSDH published guidelines for the operation of sanitary landfills.54 Since then, the Legislature has passed various statutory provisions that have resulted in a comprehensive waste management framework to protect public health and the environment.

1970: The Oklahoma Solid Waste Management Act
In 1970, the Legislature passed the Oklahoma Solid Waste Management Act (OSWMA)55 with the stated purpose of regulating "the collection and disposal of solid wastes in a manner that will: (a) protect the public health and welfare; (b) prevent water pollution or air pollution; (c) prevent the spread of disease and the creation of nuisances; (d) conserve natural resources; and (e) enhance the beauty and quality of the environment." The OSWMA authorized local governments to develop comprehensive solid waste management systems by: (1) contracting with other public or private parties to purchase land and equipment necessary to implement a management system and to provide for a disposal site; (2) assessing fees through local ordinances to fund the solid waste management system; (3) using federal, state, or private monies to fund the management system; and (4) developing local rules for operation of the system and disposal sites. The OSWMA also required permits for any site used to dispose of solid waste, prohibited disposal of solid waste at sites without a permit, and authorized the OSDH to develop implementing regulations. For the first time in Oklahoma's history, the Legislature recognized solid waste as a stand-alone problem to address.

In June 1971, OSDH promulgated regulations to implement the OSWMA.56 The full text of the OSWMA and the implementing regulations were contained within a 25-page, 9 1/4" x 4" booklet, designed to fit neatly in the shirt pocket of an early OSDH Sanitarian. Under those regulations, all "city dumps" were required to obtain a temporary "permit" from OSDH, though the permits were nothing more than a method of registering the dump's existence. Based upon population served, the temporary permits would gradually expire over a period of a few years (requiring the dump to be properly closed at the end of the period) unless the owner upgraded the dump to specified "sanitary landfill" standards. 

One very interesting aspect of the early OSWMA and rules is that hazardous wastes were authorized to be disposed at a sanitary landfill if such disposal was approved by OSDH. At that time, Oklahoma did not have a separate category of waste called "hazardous waste;" all waste was considered "solid waste." Thus, in 1972, the Royal Hardage Disposal Site near Criner, Oklahoma received a solid waste permit and began accepting wastes that, under today's regulations, would have to be managed as hazardous waste. This would later come back to haunt the OSDH as the site officially became a Superfund site in 1983.

Over the years, the OSWMA and rules have been modified significantly from their initial requirements in order to meet new federal requirements and in response to knowledge gained about waste management issues. Because RCRA Subtitle D is a program EPA can delegate to the states, Oklahoma began revising its solid waste management regulations to meet the federal requirements and receive authorization to manage the Subtitle D program. In 1994, Oklahoma received that authorization.

1976: The Oklahoma Hazardous Waste Management Act
Shortly before RCRA was passed by Congress in 1976, the Oklahoma Legislature recognized the need to provide additional regulatory oversight for hazardous chemical wastes. Thus, the Oklahoma Controlled Industrial Waste Disposal Act (OCIWDA) was passed in 1976, and defined a new type of solid waste, called "Controlled Industrial Waste." The OCIWDA set forth additional standards for managing those wastes and gave OSDH responsibility for enforcing its provisions. While we now refer to such wastes as "hazardous wastes," at the time the Legislature felt use of that term may be too alarming and opted for the less-alarming moniker, "Controlled Industrial Waste." In 1977, OSDH promulgated its first regulations for management of these wastes. 

Because EPA was authorized to delegate the federal RCRA Subtitle C program to the states if the states' hazardous waste regulatory programs were at least equivalent to the federal program, Oklahoma sought to receive that delegation. In 1985 EPA granted Oklahoma's application to manage the Subtitle C program in the state. Each year since, agency rules have been updated to ensure equivalency to the federal program and to retain delegation. In 1992, the OCIWDA was renamed "The Oklahoma Hazardous Waste Management Act."

1980: Oklahoma's Superfund Program
While the federal Superfund program is one of only a few federal environmental programs that is not delegated to the states, the DEQ participates in the Superfund program via contracts and grant monies from the EPA. This program is useful to Oklahoma because it provides regulatory and financial support to remediate environmental problems that may not otherwise be addressed. 

In 1980, under CERCLA authority, the Tar Creek Superfund Site in northeast Oklahoma became one of the first sites in the nation to begin undergoing a Superfund cleanup. Due to the size of the affected area and the multitude of health and environmental problems associated with the site, the cleanup is still underway. Oklahoma has 14 Superfund sites, most of which are former petrochemical refineries, lead and zinc smelters and industrial waste landfills. Four of the 14 sites have been completed and three of the sites are in the beginning phases of investigation. The remaining seven are undergoing remediation or are in a long-term groundwater remedy phase.

1989: The Oklahoma Waste Tire Recycling Act
In spite of greater regulatory oversight of waste management in the state, Oklahomans were becoming keenly aware of the growing problem of proliferating tire dumps. In general, tires present a huge disposal problem. Landfills are most efficient when wastes can be tightly compacted to ensure the largest quantity of waste is disposed in the smallest volume possible. Tires cannot be compacted to any great degree and so represent an inefficient use of landfill space. Furthermore, disposed tires will, over time, tend to "float" to the top of the fill, damaging the landfill cover. Landfill operators, therefore, generally did not wish to accept waste tires. With landfill disposal not a viable option and no other outlets available for managing waste tires, many of the approximately three million waste tires generated annually in Oklahoma ended up being illegally dumped in ravines across the state.

In 1989, the Legislature responded to the growing tire problem by enacting the Oklahoma Waste Tire Recycling Act (OWTRA). The OWTRA established a three-pronged approach to address the tire problem. First, it made it unlawful for any person to have more than 50 waste tires on his property. Secondly, it required that a fee be paid upon the sale of new tires, with the income going into a fund to reimburse certain entities for cleaning up tire dumps, collecting waste tires from tire dealers, and manufacturing products from recycled waste tires. Third, it established a framework for entities to receive DEQ authorization to manage waste tires and, in turn, receive reimbursement from the fund.

waste tire dump
Figure 7. Waste Tire Dump.

The waste tire program in Oklahoma has been one of DEQ's most visible success stories. Since the inception of the program in 1989, approximately five million waste tires have been removed from dumps across Oklahoma, while the vast majority of the newly-generated waste tires are managed in an environmentally responsible manner.

1993: The Oklahoma Environmental Quality Act
By the early 1990s, Oklahoma had a relatively mature environmental protection program. Over the years, however, environmental programs and laws had been divided among several statutes and state agencies, and lines of jurisdiction were relatively undefined. The Legislature realized that the widely-spread environmental laws needed to be consolidated. Thus, in 1993 the Oklahoma Environmental Quality Act was enacted, setting out four goals:

  • address environmental regulatory concerns of industry and the public in an expedient manner;
  • improve the manner in which citizen complaints are tracked and resolved;
  • better utilize state financial resources for environmental regulatory services; and
  • coordinate environmental activities of state environmental agencies.

As a result of the Act, the environmental protection responsibilities of OSDH were transferred to the new Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality on July 1, 1993.

1994: The Oklahoma Uniform Environmental Permitting Act
Realizing the need for a more uniform process for issuing environmental permits and believing the public had a right to be involved in those issues, the Legislature enacted the Oklahoma Uniform Environmental Permitting Act on July 1, 1994. Its two broad goals were to ensure: (1) there were uniform provisions industry would follow when applying for and receiving permits; and (2) the public had ample opportunities to be involved in permitting decisions.

1996: The Oklahoma Brownfields Voluntary Redevelopment Act
In the mid-1980s, an innovative approach to two environmental problems resulted in the development of a new process to ensure environmental cleanups were completed in a cost-effective manner. In one, the OSDH discovered historical contamination at a closed battery manufacturer in Oklahoma City. OSDH staff obtained soil samples to positively identify the amount of contamination present, then contacted the owner and offered a method to remediate the site without the stigma and time involved with doing so under Superfund oversight. At another site, a large refinery in Oklahoma was in need of cleanup due to historical contamination. The company agreed to enter into a consent agreement with OSDH, which was filed in District Court.

These early events marked the beginning of what became known as the Voluntary Cleanup Program (VCP). Under the VCP, facility owners and operators can voluntarily enter into an agreement with DEQ to ensure contaminated properties are investigated and remediated. While the actual work is performed by the facility, DEQ staff provides technical oversight of the entire project from the initial planning stage to final completion. Since its humble beginnings, over 350 sites have either completed or are currently participating in the VCP. Many times, this voluntary initiative leads to beneficial reuse of the land.

Due directly to the success of the VCP, the Legislature passed the Oklahoma Brownfields Voluntary Redevelopment Act (OBVRA) in 1996. Under the OBVRA, entities who own contaminated properties may work with the DEQ to voluntarily clean up these sites for reuse. By entering into the program, property owners, lenders, and others affiliated with the affected property are relieved of much of the liability associated with contaminated sites if the remedial work is performed properly.

What It All Means
For centuries man has grappled with the problem of what to do with the solid waste he generates. For over 200 years, beginning in colonial America, solid waste was considered more a nuisance rather than something needing direct attention. This began to slowly change in the late 1800s and early 1900s when, due to America's rapid growth and the start of the industrial age, local governments began seeing a need to address the problem.  However, significant governmental involvement at any level lagged behind until the last half of the 20th Century when the waste management focus shifted from what couldn't be done with waste to what is the best way to manage the waste that is generated.

To address these growing problems in Oklahoma, the Legislature has enacted several environmental statutes to ensure Oklahoman's have a robust framework for both proper management of today's wastes and cleanup of historical contamination.

Interesting Trivia
The oldest Oklahoma landfill for which DEQ has a record is the Sitting Bear Creek Disposal Site located on Fort Sill, which operated from approximately 1880 to 1945.57 Since Oklahoma began requiring permits for waste disposal sites in 1970, over 900 sites have obtained some form of permit. The first temporary permit [Permit No. 3518001(T)] was issued to the City of Vinita on August 10, 1971 and the first permit for a sanitary landfill under the 1971 standards was issued to the City of Bartlesville on August 13, 1971 [Permit No. 3574001].

Currently, Oklahoma has 128 active waste disposal sites:

  • 46 solid waste transfer stations
  • 37 municipal solid waste landfills
  • 11 privately-owned, non-hazardous industrial waste landfills
  • 8 construction/demolition landfills
  • 7 medical waste processing facilities
  • 4 waste tire processing facilities
  • 3 yard waste composting facilities
  • 9 privately-owned, non-hazardous waste injection wells
  • 1 municipal solid waste incinerator
  • 1 commercial hazardous waste landfill
  • 1 commercial, non-hazardous waste injection well

But, in spite of all our efforts, DEQ still occasionally runs across the industrious soul who wants to do things his own way!

hang a sign, "open for business!."

Figure 8. Hang an "Open for Business" sign and we're ready to go!

Photographic Credits
Figure 1. Melosi, Martin V., The Sanitary City, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, 181, from Scribner's Magazine 34 (October 1903), 395.

Figure 2. Melosi, Martin V., The Sanitary City, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, 178, from One Hundred Years of Public Works Equipment: An Illustrated History, Chicago: Chicago Public Works Historical Society, 1986, 19.

Figure 3. City of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Public Works Department.

Figure 4. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, Reproduction Nos. LC-USF34-033871-D and LC-USF34-033874-D, July 1939, Russell Lee, photographer.

Figure 5. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, Reproduction No. LC-USF34-033878-D, July 1939, Russell Lee, photographer.

Figure 6. City of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Solid Waste Management Division.

Figure 7. Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, Land Protection Division.

Figure 8. Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, Environmental Complaints and Local Services Division.

1 Black Sheep, Words and Music by ROBERT ALTMAN and DANIEL DARST, © 1983 EMI ALGEE MUSIC CORP. and IRVING MUSIC, INC., All Rights on behalf of EMI ALGEE MUSIC CORP. Controlled by EMI AL GALLICO MUSIC CORP., All Rights Reserved.
2 Niemczewski, Christopher, "The History of Solid Waste Management," Chap. 2 in The Organization and Efficiency of Solid Waste Collection, New York: The Trustees of Columbia University, 1977.
3 Barbalace, Roberta Crowell, "The History of Waste: Do you want to be a garbologist?," August 2003, <> (February 28, 2007).
4 Ibid.
5 U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Milestones in Garbage: A historical timeline of municipal solid waste management," February 22, 2006, <> (February 28, 2007).
6 BFI Waste Services of Salinas, CA, "Trash Timeline - History of Garbage," <> (February 28, 2007).
7 Barbalace.
8 Thoburn, Joseph B., "The Prehistoric Cultures of Oklahoma," Chronicles of Oklahoma 7, no. 3 (September 1929), <> (March 14, 2007).
9 Hickman, H. Lanier, Jr., and Richard W. Eldredge, "A Brief History of Solid Waste Management in the US, 1950 - 2000, Part 1: Introducing the Pioneers," <> (February 28, 2007).
10 Melosi, Martin V., The Sanitary City, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, 21.
11 Melosi, 18.
12 Ibid., 18, 19.
13 U. S. Environmental Protection Agency.
14 BFI Waste Services of Salinas, CA.
15 Kovarik, William, Ph.D., "Environmental History Timeline: 1200 - 1750," <> (March 23, 2007).
16 Dunson, Cheryl L., "Waste and Wealth: A 200-Year History of Solid Waste in America," Waste Age, December 1, 1999.
17 Ibid., 21.
18 Barbalace.
19 Melosi, 47, 68.
20 Ibid., 68.
21 Ibid., 69.
22 Ibid., 175.
23 Ibid., 202.
24 Ibid., 262, 263.
25 Ibid., 269.
26 Ibid., 270.
27 Ibid., 270, 271.
28 Rauch, Barbara, "Infamis Aer, Dragons and Fiery Rivers: Historical Background of America's Environmental Laws," The Oklahoma Bar Journal, 76, no. 24 (September 3, 2005).
29 Melosi, 290.
30 Hickman, H. Lanier, Jr., and Richard W. Eldredge, "A Brief History of Solid Waste Management in the US During the Last 50 Years, Part 3: The Sanitary Landfill," <> (February 28, 2007).
31 Hickman, H. Lanier, Jr., "A Brief History of Solid Waste Management in the US 1950 to 2000, Part 4: Building a National Movement," <> (February 28, 2007).
32 U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, "The Challenge of the Environment: A Primer on EPA's Statutory Authority," December 1972, <> (August 9, 2007).
33 Rauch.
34 Melosi, 352.
35 Ibid.
36 Hickman, H. Lanier, Jr., "A Brief History of Solid Waste Management in the US, 1950 - 2000, Part 5a: Building an Infrastructure," <> (February 28, 2007).
37 Ibid.
38 Melosi, 352.
39 Rauch.
40 Ibid.
41 Ibid.
42 Whalen, Robert P., M.D., "Love Canal: Public Health Time Bomb: A Special Report to the Governor and Legislature," September 1978.
43 Ibid.
44 General Statutes of the Territory of Oklahoma, Chapter 25, Article 38, Section 2276 (1890).
45 General Statutes of the Territory of Oklahoma, Chapter 25, Article 38, Section 2280 (1890).
46 General Statutes of the Territory of Oklahoma, Chapter 25, Article 38, Section 2292 (1890).
47 General Statutes of the Territory of Oklahoma, Chapter 56, Sections 3712 and 3713 (1890).
48 General Statutes of the Territory of Oklahoma, Chapter 56, Section 3714 (1890).
49 General Statutes of the Territory of Oklahoma, Chapter 16, Article 1, Section 686 (1890).
50 Oklahoma Statutes, Chapter 2, Article I, Section 25 (1909).
51 Oklahoma Statutes, Chapter 75, Article III, Sections 4833 and 4837 (1909).
52 Merrill, Pam, "Mays Avenue Community Camp, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma," <> (March 23, 2007) and "Oklahoma's Hooverville," <> (March 23, 2007).
53 Oklahoma Statutes, Title 63, Section 1-1012 (1963).
54 Oklahoma State Department of Health, "Sanitary Landfill Operation," ODH Bulletin 0523, (1969).
55 Oklahoma Statutes, Title 63 Sections 2251-2265 (1970).
56 Oklahoma State Department of Health, "The Oklahoma Solid Waste Management Act of 1970 with Rules and Regulations," ODH Bulletin 0524, (1971).
57 Kelly, Michael J., James D. Daniel, Glen Wheat, Mark Soltero, and Gregory K. Herring, FY2005 Fort Sill, Oklahoma Installation Action Plan, Department of the Army, September 2004.