Tar Creek: A case for oversight

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Visiting the remnants of the Tar Creek Superfund site

PICHER, Okla. — The devastation of small towns near the Oklahoma-Kansas state line and at the heart of the Tar Creek Superfund site appears fairly straightforward. In the most simple terms, the problem is as prominent and overwhelming as the mountainous piles of mining tailings, known as chat, which blanket the landscape and dust what remains.

The parking lot for the abandoned Picher Christian Church at 201 S. Netta St. is now overgrown and the building is rapidly deteriorating as of Aug. 23, 2014. Just a year ago, the awning over the church doors was intact. Graffiti is also a relatively new addition to the site. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
The parking lot for the abandoned Picher Christian Church at 201 S. Netta St. is now overgrown and the building is rapidly deteriorating as of Aug. 23, 2014. Just a year ago, the awning over the church doors was intact. Graffiti is also a relatively new addition to the site. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

Closer inspection, however, reveals broken promises, shortsighted industries, waterways stained red, sinkholes as small as manholes and as large as football fields, people with permanent neurological damage and more than 30 years of national awareness yet few, if any, improvements.

Motorists on U.S. Highway 69 traveling through the Tar Creek Superfund site are greeted by dilapidated store fronts and a looming water tower in Picher, Okla. on Aug. 23, 2014. The middle structure was once home to Carlin’s Hardware. The Brass Rail, a local drinking establishment was in the section on the right of the photo. To the left was once Hoppy’s Pastime Mining Mini-Museum, a pool hall turned historic property that featured local live music on Monday nights, that once had an old, rusted iron ore can filled with rock on the front sidewalk. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Motorists on U.S. Highway 69 traveling through the Tar Creek Superfund site are greeted by dilapidated store fronts and a looming water tower in Picher, Okla. on Aug. 23, 2014. The middle structure was once home to Carlin’s Hardware. The Brass Rail, a local drinking establishment was in the section on the right of the photo. To the left was once Hoppy’s Pastime Mining Mini-Museum, a pool hall turned historic property that featured local live music on Monday nights, that once had an old, rusted iron ore can filled with rock on the front sidewalk. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

Grasping and understanding the history of the location and how it came nearly to being a ghost town is difficult. Perhaps that’s why the area remains as environmentally poisoned now as it was years ago. Or perhaps the few remaining residents are correct in thinking that the mostly evacuated small towns here — Picher, Cardin, Hockerville and others — are simply forgotten. The problems are too large, too complex, too expensive to be managed, some say.

Yet history has proved that environmental disasters don’t just disappear when removed from the public view. They fester. They float down small creeks, across surface waters and into rivers where they travel to and infect tourism destinations populated by unknowing visitors.

Unmitigated, the stories of the former residents of these towns will become the stories of the residents of other towns downstream. Lessons unlearned, this history will be repeated.

THERE TO HERE

Tar Creek - The front steps of a demolished home sit alongside U.S. Highway 69 in Picher, Okla. on Aug. 23, 2014. One of the Tar Creek Superfund site's massive chat piles is seen in the distance and bumps against the residential area. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
The front steps of a demolished home sit alongside U.S. Highway 69 in Picher, Okla. on Aug. 23, 2014. One of the Tar Creek Superfund site’s massive chat piles is seen in the distance and bumps against the residential area. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

The story of the Picher mining fields begins in the 1890s, before Oklahoma was a state and the land was part of the Quapaw (O-Gah-Paw) Nation’s reservation, when a significant vein of lead and zinc was discovered. Forty-acre allotments of Quapaw land were soon distributed by the U.S. Department of the Interior to miners. Substantial operations began in 1908 when roughly 500,000 tons of production took place at mining sites in Miami-Commerce, Quapaw and Picher.

Mining in and near Picher soon dwarfed the other sites, with more than 8 million tons of production in 1925 from Picher alone. Production for the larger area that same year was 10 million tons, with the vast majority of the minerals being used by the U.S. military — completely fueling national needs during World War I and being the primary source of the minerals used in ammunition during World War II.

When mining operations ceased in 1970, the region lay in the shadow of chat piles that could be seen from at least 10 miles away, nearly 181 million tons had been pulled from the earth, partly at government expense. About 154 million tons came from Picher.

One of the warnings issued by the Tri-State Mining Company before it closed was an environmental need for operations to continue.

Tar Creek - The now sadly ironic Picher Mining Museum is among the abandoned properties within the Tar Creek Superfund site along U.S. Highway 69 just north of Picher, Okla. The museum is empty, its contents relocated, and was succumbing to the elements on Aug. 23, 2014. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
The now sadly ironic Picher Mining Museum is among the abandoned properties within the Tar Creek Superfund site along U.S. Highway 69 just north of Picher, Okla. The museum is empty, its contents relocated, and was succumbing to the elements on Aug. 23, 2014. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

“Abandonment would cause mine flooding; the loss of machinery and equipment; and the irretrievable loss of trained miners and ‘Know How,’” the company wrote in a statement to political leaders. “Mine flooding would result in sulphate contamination of the mine water, which if pumped out at a future time, would create serious stream pollution.”

The company was correct in its environmental assessment. By 1979, the abandoned mines had filled and acid began flowing into local waterways.

In 1983, the area was dubbed the Tar Creek Superfund site by the EPA. Its severe state earned it the dubious distinction of the worst environmental site in the nation. That same year a mine collapse just southwest of town created a sinkhole 75 feet wide.

Yet it took more 10 years before state officials began to study and test local children, despite calls from local leaders regarding consistent and widespread learning problems. When health department officials went house-to-house, roughly 35 percent of the children had elevated blood-lead levels.

The Picher, Okla. football team were named state champions the year after the town was placed at the heart of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The mascot rests at the side of the road in the now mostly abandoned town. When school items were sold at auction, the statue was taken into Missouri for a short time, but the purchaser later returned it. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
The Picher, Okla. football team were named state champions the year after the town was placed at the heart of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The mascot rests at the side of the road in the now mostly abandoned town. When school items were sold at auction, the statue was taken into Missouri for a short time, but the purchaser later returned it. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

The EPA spent three years removing contaminated soil from nearly 2,000 homes in Picher and the surrounding area at a cost in excess of $130 million, or an average of $70,000 per property. Another roughly $10 million had been spent in a failed attempt to contain the estimated 30 million gallons of acid water flowing from the mines.

In 2005, and absent any federal plan, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry initiated a state-led buyout that removed 52 families with young children from Picher at a taxpayer cost of $3 million. The state had known for 10 years that children living in the area were exposed to and often poisoned by lead in the water, air and soil.

Nearly a year later, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that more than 200 places within the Tar Creek Superfund site held a significant potential for collapse. The news persuaded the federal government to do what widespread contamination had not. Three months later, a $20 million federal buyout was announced. About $60 million has since been appropriated, but only $46 million used.

A final, parting blow was dealt to Picher on May 10, 2008, when an F4 tornado ravaged the town, destroying more than 100 homes and killing seven residents.

The final senior class of 11 students graduated from the high school in May 2009. City hall closed in September 2009, and demolition began in Jan. 2011. The towns of Picher and Cardin officially ended their charters last fall.

The community of Cardin, Okla. began as Tar River and was once a thriving, if not booming, mining community. By Jan. 1920, when the town was renamed in honor of W. Oscar Cardin, the buildup of toxins was already well underway. The town was abandoned in 2008 due to pollution and land instability. It was the first of the Tar Creek Superfund site towns to completely agree to a buyout. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
The community of Cardin, Okla. began as Tar River and was once a thriving, if not booming, mining community. By Jan. 1920, when the town was renamed in honor of W. Oscar Cardin, the buildup of toxins was already well underway. The town was abandoned in 2008 due to pollution and land instability. It was the first of the Tar Creek Superfund site towns to completely agree to a buyout. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Street view of the last standing building in Cardin, Okla. The town, a part of the Tar Creek Superfund site, was abandoned in 2008 due to pollution and land instability. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Street view of the last standing building in Cardin, Okla. The town, a part of the Tar Creek Superfund site, was abandoned in 2008 due to pollution and land instability. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

SUPER(DE)FUND

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund or CERCLA, provides a federal trust fund for cleaning up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites as well as accidents. It is through this legislation that the EPA is authorized to seek out polluters and assure cooperation in subsequent cleanup activities.

Government postings, concrete blocks and various debris keep visitors to Picher, Okla. from traveling too far into the town, which is dangerous due to environmental pollution and mining shaft collapses. The vast majority of what remains are mountainous piles of mining waste known as chat. Photo taken Aug. 23, 2014. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Government postings, concrete blocks and various debris keep visitors to Picher, Okla. from traveling too far into the town, which is dangerous due to environmental pollution and mining shaft collapses. The vast majority of what remains are mountainous piles of mining waste known as chat. Photo taken Aug. 23, 2014. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

The law was originally crafted in 1980, labeled the boldest environmental statute in U.S. history, and later amended to include provisions related to public awareness and local oversight.

However, the Superfund has been plagued by partisan politics, industry grandstanding and bureaucratic apathy.

In October 2003 the multibillion-dollar, industry-paid portion of trust fund ran out of money. Taxes on the purchase of toxic chemicals and petroleum on corporate profits above $2 million used to fund the trust were allowed to expire in 1995 and have yet to be reinstated. While the EPA can continue to seek cleanup funds from responsible parties, if those entities can’t or won’t pay, the onus is on the taxpayers.

The Republican-led U.S. House passed a bill in January, the Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act, that amended both Superfund and the Solid Waste Disposal Act. The legislation removed requirements for the EPA to routinely update and review solid waste disposal regulations, and made it more difficult for the government to require companies dealing in hazardous waste to carry enough insurance to cover cleanup operations. The bill also required more discussions with states before the EPA imposed cleanup requirements for Superfund sites.

The bill has stalled in the U.S. Senate, and the White House issued a veto threat if it were to pass, but the situation is typical of the partisan battles waged with the Superfund.

A bill was also introduced in July by New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker in the U.S. Senate to reinstate the Superfund tax, but it is not expected to gain traction in the House. During a hearing on the Superfund, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe spoke against, saying the taxes charge businesses that have nothing to do with pollution and contamination with Superfund site cleanup.

IOWA SUPERFUND

Some will no doubt say the problems in Tar Creek are rare, that regulation has run amok and it can’t or won’t happen in Iowa.

While the massive footprint in Tar Creek is unique, the basic issues of pollution and contaminants from industry is not.

Tar Creek is one of about 1,300 Superfund sites in the U.S., and 11 such sites currently exist in Iowa. Twenty-two Iowa

While many buildings in and around Picher, Okla. have been demolished in the wake of buyouts and evacuations, a few properties remain standing. These homes, photographed along Francis St. on Aug. 23, 2014, are being swallowed by vegetation. The road is impassable due to fallen trees and other debris. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
While many buildings in and around Picher, Okla. have been demolished in the wake of buyouts and evacuations, a few properties remain standing. These homes, photographed along Francis St. on Aug. 23, 2014, are being swallowed by vegetation. The road is impassable due to fallen trees and other debris. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

sites have found their way onto the National Priorities List since the program began, and another has been proposed for inclusion on that list.

The Electro-Coatings, Inc. Superfund site in Cedar Rapids was placed on the National Priorities List in 1989 after improper storage of chemicals and leaking storage containers resulted in soil and water contamination. It was placed on the NPL due to potential contamination of municipal water wells.

Cleanup began on the site in 1994, with many contaminants being removed from the location. The site continues to be monitored.

Tar Creek, like most everything Oklahoman, is in your face. Even if you can overlook the abandoned towns and fierce, red water, there’s no ignoring chat piles so large and so old that they are wind carved with plateaus and cliffs. Three generations have suffered and been poisoned in their shadow.

But as former and current residents will tell you, it isn’t the big piles or even the larger pieces of gravel that are most worrisome. It’s the dust, the small particles that can be inhaled and absorbed but not seen that will get you.

Maybe there’s enough federal money to buy some microscopes.

A town road in Picher, Okla. is blocked by the Quapaw Tribe on Aug. 23, 2014. A few of the massive chat piles that surround the community can be seen in the distance. Other roads are blocked by the federal government, and both entities are working together to begin clean up of the Tar Creek Superfund site. In Dec. 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency entered into its first ever agreement with a tribe, awarding the Quapaw $2.6 million to help with the clean up of a 40-acre area polluted by mining southeast of the town of Quapaw. Much of the Superfund site is owned by the Quapaw, a portion of the reservation they were given when they were forced from their original lands. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
A town road in Picher, Okla. is blocked by the Quapaw Tribe on Aug. 23, 2014. A few of the massive chat piles that surround the community can be seen in the distance. Other roads are blocked by the federal government, and both entities are working together to begin clean up of the Tar Creek Superfund site. In Dec. 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency entered into its first ever agreement with a tribe, awarding the Quapaw $2.6 million to help with the clean up of a 40-acre area polluted by mining southeast of the town of Quapaw. Much of the Superfund site is owned by the Quapaw, a portion of the reservation they were given when they were forced from their original lands. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
A group of abandoned apartments sits alongside U.S. Highway 69 (S. Connell Ave.) in Picher, OK on Aug. 23, 2014. Nearly all accessible and vacated properties are posted as off limits to the public. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
A group of abandoned apartments sits alongside U.S. Highway 69 (S. Connell Ave.) in Picher, OK on Aug. 23, 2014. Nearly all accessible and vacated properties are posted as off limits to the public. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Motorists on U.S. Highway 69 are greeted by dilapidated store fronts in Picher, Okla. on Aug. 23, 2014. The middle structure was once home to Carlin’s Hardware. The Brass Rail, a local drinking establishment was in the section on the right of the photo. To the left was once Hoppy’s Pastime Mining Mini-Museum, a pool hall turned historic property that featured local live music on Monday nights, that once had an old, rusted iron ore can filled with rock on the front sidewalk. The concrete slab where the photographer stood was once the site of the Country Girls Cafe. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Motorists on U.S. Highway 69 are greeted by dilapidated store fronts in Picher, Okla. on Aug. 23, 2014. The middle structure was once home to Carlin’s Hardware. The Brass Rail, a local drinking establishment was in the section on the right of the photo. To the left was once Hoppy’s Pastime Mining Mini-Museum, a pool hall turned historic property that featured local live music on Monday nights, that once had an old, rusted iron ore can filled with rock on the front sidewalk. The concrete slab where the photographer stood was once the site of the Country Girls Cafe. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Few residents remain in Picher, Okla. to fulfill the promise of this neighborhood watch sign. The community was placed in the heart of the Tar Creek Superfund site and labeled the nation's worst environmental disaster area in 1983, in the wake of a 62-year mineral mining boon. Contaminated ground water and streams, elevated lead levels in children and the land and sink holes have plagued the location, which was part of a federal buyout that began in late 2006. Two years later, in May 2008, a tornado struck 100 of the few remaining homes, ultimately persuading most residents to leave. In 2014 the town remains home to only a handful of residents and one pharmacy business. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Few residents remain in Picher, Okla. to fulfill the promise of this neighborhood watch sign. The community was placed in the heart of the Tar Creek Superfund site and labeled the nation’s worst environmental disaster area in 1983, in the wake of a 62-year mineral mining boon. Contaminated ground water and streams, elevated lead levels in children and the land and sink holes have plagued the location, which was part of a federal buyout that began in late 2006. Two years later, in May 2008, a tornado struck 100 of the few remaining homes, ultimately persuading most residents to leave. In 2014 the town remains home to only a handful of residents and one pharmacy business. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Handprints dot the back of the front porch of this overgrown property in Picher, Okla. on Aug. 23, 2014. The property is located at the corner of E. Second St and S. Emily St. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Handprints dot the back of the front porch of this overgrown property in Picher, Okla. on Aug. 23, 2014. The property is located at the corner of E. Second St and S. Emily St. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Flooring deteriorates on cement slab in Picher, Okla. on Aug. 23, 2014. The building that once stood on the site has been demolished, either by the hand of man or tornado. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Flooring deteriorates on cement slab in Picher, Okla. on Aug. 23, 2014. The building that once stood on the site has been demolished, either by the hand of man or tornado. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
An abandoned home along E. Second St in Picher, Okla. has lost its porch roof to the elements on Aug. 23, 2014. A block west, near the intersection of McLain St., sink holes have claimed both sides of the street and threaten other structures. Despite once being classified as the worst environmental site in the nation, it wasn’t until portions of the Tar Creek Superfund site began collapsing into the underground mines that buyouts and evacuations began. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
An abandoned home along E. Second St in Picher, Okla. has lost its porch roof to the elements on Aug. 23, 2014. A block west, near the intersection of McLain St., sink holes have claimed both sides of the street and threaten other structures. Despite once being classified as the worst environmental site in the nation, it wasn’t until portions of the Tar Creek Superfund site began collapsing into the underground mines that buyouts and evacuations began. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
The parking lot for the abandoned Picher Christian Church at 201 S. Netta St. is now overgrown and the building is rapidly deteriorating. Just a year ago, the awning over the church doors was intact. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
The parking lot for the abandoned Picher Christian Church at 201 S. Netta St. is now overgrown and the building is rapidly deteriorating. Just a year ago, the awning over the church doors was intact. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Aug. 31, 2014. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette