“Breathtaking" Scenery and Grassroots Outrage: Tar Creek “Toxic Tour” and Fishing Tournament

Tuesday, April 13, 1999

Published on 4/13/99

It started as a plan to hold a fishing tournament in a “fishless,” polluted creek. It grew into a grassroots environmental movement and a national conference with a profound message: “Don’t play here; its deadly.”

Oklahoma’s Ottawa County is one of the most environmentally ravaged communities in the nation. Beneath the surface of farms in Picher, Cardin and Commerce, more than 26 billion gallons of acidic water fill up the empty lead, zinc and cadmium mines abandoned by hundreds of mining companies decades after the industry’s heyday.

Insidious seepage runs into Tar Creek and flows orange as a basketball. Just beyond the backyard fences of homes and schools, millions of cubic yards of mining waste, or “chat piles,” loom.

A 10-K run and bike race will be staged Saturday, April 17, in the shadows of the butte-sized toxic piles. Riders must wear hospital masks to protect themselves from the dangerous dust, giving a whole new meaning to the concept of “breathtaking” scenery.

“The levels of environmental damage and evil in Ottawa County are astounding,” says Jason Aamodt, research fellow with TU’s National Energy-Environment Law Policy Institute (NELPI). “This could be one of the most polluted places on earth.”

But you don’t hear much about that. After all, Ottawa County is tucked away in the far northeastern corner of the state, nowhere in sight of an interstate, and most of the land is owned by members of tribal communities that have historically lacked the political muscle to effect change. Though landowners and citizens have been trying desperately to rectify the situation and hold some entity accountable, 20 years after being named a Superfund site and millions of dollars in remediation later, cleanup has been declared a failure.

“It’s an appalling situation,” says Earl Hatley, Environmental Program Director of the Quapaw Nation, who complained that the EPA waited until the mid-1990s to review the work it finished in 1986. “They left for an entire decade and nothing happened.”

Rebecca Jim, a counselor at Miami High School, and Hatley are members of a local concerned citizens group called the Cherokee Volunteers. They came up with the idea for the “Toxic Tour.” By creating a running, biking and fishing event around the blighted landscape of Ottawa County’s abandoned mines, acid marshes and chat piles, they hoped to attract attention beyond their rural community.

The full-scale human tragedy of living one’s entire life with lead contamination has yet to be realized, but what is known is the toll its taking on the community’s children. High lead levels have been found in 70 percent of the children in the area, leading to kidney damage, hypertension and lost IQ. “We don’t know how much damage has been done,” says Jim. “There are a lot of insidious consequences later in life. My first priority is to educate the kids and their parents regarding the danger.” Education programs include children’s handwashing, explaining to parents why they must wash toys children bring in the house, and what to do to keep the dog from tracking contaminated dirt indoors. To Jim, every IQ point matters.

Though four years of Toxic Tours have not brought great attention to the community, residents’ perseverance and dedication to the well-being of the children and land has. And with the help of NELPI, they have launched their first national conference on the subject.

Titled, “Abandoned Mine Reclamation: A Case Study of Tar Creek,” the conference will be held April 15-16 in Miami, Okla., and feature speakers including Scott Thompson, Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality; Jerry Clifford, Environmental Protection Agency; Dave Askman with the Department of the Interior; Lloyd Landreth from the Tulsa law firm Gardere & Wynne, L.L.P.; and professors from The University of Tulsa, the University of Oklahoma and Harvard University. The Toxic Tour gets underway at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 17, in Miami.

During the past few months, NELPI has worked with the Quapaw Nation to develop a comprehensive understanding of the legal framework within which past Tar Creek legal actions were taken, and to ascertain new avenues for remedial solutions. Bringing attention to the situation is the first step.

Additional Points of Interest: • The Quapaw Nation, comprised of 2,500 members, own 12,000 acres within the waste site. They are headquartered in Quapaw, Okla., near Miami. • Tar Creek is on the EPA’s “Top 10” environmental problems list and from 1981-83 was declared the most polluted site in America. • Tar Creek is just as polluted now as it was 20 years ago. • The Quapaws have the authority to assert their sovereign governmental rights and NELPI is representing the tribe in its efforts to do this through an upcoming Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) action. • Love Canal is the nation’s most famous Superfund site. The Exxon Valdez is a prime example of a NRDA action.

Editors Notes: • Find quick-load or high-resolution Tar Creek images and articles on the web at www.nelpi.org/tarcreek • Reporters are welcome to contact Aamodt, Jim or Hatley directly for quotes or more information about the week’s activities at the following numbers: Jason Aamodt – (918) 631-3049 work, (918) 664-2880 home; Rebecca Jim – (918) 542-4421 work, (918) 256-5269; or Earl Hatley – (918) 542-1853 work, (918) 256-5269 home.