When Scott Pruitt became head of the EPA, the first thing that came to my mind was, Tar Creek. It’s not a place many have heard of, but it’s a place that has impacted the lives of Oklahomans for years.
Tar Creek Background
Tar Creek is one of the worst Superfund sites in the country. It was declared a Superfund site in 1983, making it one of the first sites, and it is still one of the worst. Tar Creek is located in the northeast corner of Oklahoma. It’s the area where the Quapaw tribe was forcibly relocated to in 1834. At the time the area had little economic value. That all changed when it was discovered that Tar Creek had one of the deepest reservoirs of lead-zinc ore in the world.
The Tri-State mining district, which included Tar Creek and the small town of Picher, Oklahoma, produced more than 55% of all metals worldwide for more than a decade.
During World War I and World War II, the government subsidized mining and manufactured metal for the wars:
“Roughly 75 percent of the American bullets and bombshells used in the two World Wars were made from this area’s metals; half came from Picher alone.“- The Oklahoma town that produced most of WWI’s bullets is now a poison graveyard
While this mining boom brought a lot of good to the area and the country for a time, it came at a cost to human health. The area was mined from the 1900’s to the 1960’s. When mining ended, it left behind huge volumes of mining waste and a hidden danger: approximately 300 miles of underground mine tunnels.
Tar Creek and the Superfund: National Priorities List
In 1979, the orange acid mine water that had been filling the old mines, started to flow into surface waters. This impacted water quality and killed fish. It was largely the reason Tar Creek landed on the inaugural Superfund: National Priorities List, which it is still on.
Dirty water wasn’t Tar Creek’s only problem. Mining waste, also known as chat, was left behind and still remains. Children once played on huge hills of mining waste, using the hills like a giant sandbox. Families would even picnic on the sandy beaches of Tar Creek. The problem was: sand from mining waste is toxic.
When 100 young school children were finally tested for lead poisoning, the results showed that they had over 43% elevated blood levels for leads – 11 times greater than the state average.
Cleaning up Tar Creek
In the mid-1990’s, the EPA started the first measures fix the chat pollution problems. They removed around 6 inches of soil, sometimes more, depending on how far down the contamination in people’s yards reached. This cost around $140 million. The cleanup caused flooding and mold. And it didn’t touch the chat piles that were all over town, even right next door to the school. Many asked for home buyouts, so they could move away from the toxic piles.
Our leader in Congress, Oklahoma Senator, Jim Inhofe, originally fought against a buyout for Tar Creek, providing a cleanup plan instead. However, in April of 2005 Governor Brad Henry initiated to move the most at risk out of the area. This cost $3 million.
The cleanup plan changed when large sinkholes started opening up around Picher. The US Army Corps of Engineers were sent in to study the issue and found there were more than 200 places that had the potential to collapse due to mines collapsing. This triggered a federal buyout plan, which was announced in May of 2006. Eventually, $60 million would be appropriated for the buyout. Picher became a ghost town.
Tar Creek Back in the News
A top manager who supervises the EPA’s program responsible for cleaning up highly contaminated Superfund sites, told Congress we need a plan for the threat climate change poses to the more than 1,300 Superfund sites.
Last year, Scott Pruitt appointed a Superfund Task Force, which issued a list of 42 recommendations, but it made no mention of the risks associated with climate change. According to an AP report,
“EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has called cleaning up Superfund sites a top priority, even as he has taken steps to roll back or delay rules aimed at preventing air and water pollution.”
Flooding is a major concern, and we saw how that played out during Hurricane Harvey. Contaminated Superfund sites flooded into the streets of Houston, stirring up dangerous sediment and threatening groundwater.
The Superfund in Pruitt’s Backyard
Tar Creek is a Superfund site in Pruitt’s backyard, and it’s in the news again because a group has sued to acquire records released on Tar Creek. The group believes there was corruption involved. The cleanup took place before Pruitt became EPA administrator, but he was the Attorney General of Oklahoma when his office was asked to investigate possible criminal activity. Pruitt received the results in 2015 and declined to file charges or release the audit publicly.
Pruitt’s involvement in this huge environmental disaster, in my home state, only adds to the concerns of what damage he will continue to do as the head of the EPA.
Our families can’t afford the dangerous legacies Superfund sites like Tar Creek leave behind. We must tell our elected officials to stop repeating these deadly mistakes. We must tell them not to side with industry over the health of our children. And we must tell them to take action to clean up toxic Superfund sites today.
To learn more about Tar Creek, please check out the documentary Tar Creek- The Nation’s Worst Environmental Disaster.
Photo: Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO