Description and Details

Orig­i­nat­ing in south­east Kansas, Tar Creek is 11 miles long and runs through the Tar Creek Super­fund site in Okla­homa, home to for­mer zinc and lead mines. In 1870, the Bureau of Indi­an Affairs ille­git­i­mate­ly sold the land of the Qua­paw tribe to min­ing com­pa­nies. The land sold was land giv­en to the Qua­paw tribe after being removed from their ances­tral lands in Arkansas. From the late 1800s to 1960s, the Tar Creek area in north­east­ern Okla­homa was the home of sev­er­al min­ing oper­a­tions that extract­ed lead and zinc below ground used in cre­at­ing bul­lets for the U.S. mil­i­tary in both world wars. Min­ing occurred over 300 feet deep, and ran­dom pil­lar mines were used to sup­port the below-ground oper­a­tions. When the mine start­ed to decrease in pro­duc­tion, some of the pil­lars were mined lead­ing to ongo­ing col­laps­es. Dur­ing oper­a­tion, the mines were pumped dry, but when the min­ing end­ed in the late 1960s, the ground­wa­ter was allowed to seep in, becom­ing acidic and laced with heavy met­als once it got inside the mines. This water then flows out of the mine shafts and con­t­a­m­i­nates the area. It is esti­mat­ed that the site dis­charges a mil­lion gal­lons every day since 1979. In 1983, after grow­ing envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, forty square miles of the min­ing site was declared one of the first super­fund sites in the nation. These envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns were raised after the Tar Creek ran orange from the acid mine drainage and impact­ed the water­shed of the region in addi­tion to the dis­card­ed mine tail­ings hav­ing lead lev­els of 15,000 ppm with around 40 mil­lion tons of chat at the site. This con­t­a­m­i­na­tion has had severe health effects on the com­mu­ni­ty, with a study done by the Indi­an Health Ser­vice find­ing 34% of chil­dren in the area were lead poi­soned. Two addi­tion­al super­fund sites in Kansas and Mis­souri flow into rivers that con­nect to the riv­er that Tar Creek flows into which forms the Grand Riv­er. The Grand Riv­er is dammed and forms Grand Lake which can col­lect the heavy met­als dis­charged from Tar Creek and is a con­cern as the lake is for fish­ing and drink­ing water use. 

Efforts made to clean up the super­fund site by agen­cies include putting up a berm to pre­vent the min­ing site water from enter­ing Tar Creek, but the berm failed. Some mine shafts and bore­holes were filled to pre­vent water from enter­ing the aquifers. Addi­tion­al­ly, res­i­dents in the towns of Pich­er and Cardin were bought out as their homes were in dan­ger for struc­tur­al col­lapse due to the min­ing of the pil­lars. In 1995, con­cerns were raised about the con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed soil con­tain­ing lead and the health impacts of such con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. A coun­ty­wide oper­a­tion was start­ed by the EPA where any res­i­dent in Ottawas coun­ty could have their soil test­ed for lead and have it replaced. One con­cern about the exca­va­tion process from replac­ing soil in homes and at the site is the haul­ing away of the mine waste and con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed soil con­tain­ing lead, arsenic, zinc, cad­mi­um, and man­ganese blow­ing in the wind and fur­ther spread­ing. As con­t­a­m­i­na­tion spreads in the area, con­cern is also focused on the towns that Tar Creek flows through down­stream as it is a source of drink­ing water and recre­ation. This con­cern has increased as an amend­ment has been pro­posed in the Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act that could cause Grand Lake to be two feet deep­er, which would cause fur­ther flood­ing of Tar Creek and sub­se­quent­ly fur­ther con­t­a­m­i­nate impact­ed communities. 

Aware­ness sur­round­ing Tar Creek and its impacts has been raised by local com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers who fear for their health and feel their voic­es are not being heard. Res­i­dents of the affect­ed include the Qua­paw Nation and eight oth­er tribes that live in Ottawa coun­ty. Local com­mu­ni­ty efforts have includ­ed a school coun­selor spon­sor­ing a club doing ser­vice-learn­ing projects where stu­dents raised aware­ness about the creek. Addi­tion­al­ly, meet­ings have been held with offi­cials from agen­cies charged to clean up the super­fund site. When fur­ther action was not being tak­en by offi­cials, the Local Envi­ron­men­tal Action Demand­ed (LEAD) agency, a local non­prof­it, was found­ed in 1997 that fights for envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice and rais­es aware­ness in this rur­al, under­rep­re­sent­ed com­mu­ni­ty. Efforts con­tin­ue with week­ly tours of Tar Creek to high­light the tox­i­c­i­ty of the area, and news­pa­per columns are pro­duced that pro­vide updates about progress on the cleanup. Addi­tion­al­ly, the Tar Creek Envi­ron­men­tal Con­fer­ence was cre­at­ed that is free to res­i­dents and offers pre­sen­ta­tions from agen­cies and trib­al pro­gram man­agers about progress. The goal for the com­mu­ni­ty is to keep atten­tion on Tar Creek and con­tin­ue the cleanup process. 

Tar Creek is still named one of the ten most endan­gered rivers in the coun­try, and 50 years after the mines closed ‚the area still faces seri­ous envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns includ­ing con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed ground­wa­ter, air pol­lu­tion, and ground insta­bil­i­ty. Cur­rent­ly, the EPA has giv­en the Qua­paw Nation a con­tract for the cleanup work, but the fund­ing is lim­it­ed for exten­sive work and the cleanup could take decades before com­ple­tion. EPA also released a five-year plan in 2019 that pledges $16 mil­lion each year for the next five years to aid the cleanup. Despite the acid mine drainage con­tin­u­ing to run into the creek, locals still have hope for the area despite offi­cials des­ig­nat­ing Tar Creek as irre­versibly dam­aged. A Uni­ver­si­ty of Okla­homa pro­fes­sor spe­cial­iz­ing in envi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing ran a pilot project using a series of ponds to rid the water of its heavy met­als, which was suc­cess­ful in meet­ing typ­i­cal stream water qual­i­ty stan­dards. Anoth­er solu­tion pro­posed by the locals includ­ed pulling out enough water to low­er the aquifer and then adding a waste­water treat­ment sys­tem which was the orig­i­nal plan by the EPA but was ulti­mate­ly scrapped due to exten­sive costs. Oth­er solu­tions are being devel­oped as the area gains more atten­tion, and locals are hope­ful that the future of Tar Creek won’t just be an area that is cleaned to meet stan­dards but is restored to its orig­i­nal state fit for recre­ation and fishing. 

There are sev­er­al con­cerns sur­round­ing the envi­ron­men­tal injus­tice in this com­mu­ni­ty includ­ing how the Qua­paw tribe did not ask for the min­ing to occur on their land, they did not receive their fair share of the min­ing prof­its, and now their land is con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed with the con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water flow­ing into oth­er trib­al regions down­stream. Locals feel aban­doned as they expect­ed the EPA to fix the prob­lem effi­cient­ly, but the prob­lem per­sists with atten­tion brought to more afflu­ent com­mu­ni­ties. While work is being done on Tar Creek, it does give pause how an area can remain pol­lut­ed for 40 years with min­i­mum progress when oth­er sites have been restored in less time.

CEE sub­jects: Envi­ron­men­tal Engi­neer­ing, Water Qual­i­ty and Health, Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy and Sus­tain­able Infrastructure

Discussion Questions

  • The cleanup of Tar Creek has most­ly been pushed by local com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers advo­cat­ing for the prob­lem and their pub­lic health. Do you think civ­il and envi­ron­men­tal engi­neers should have a larg­er respon­si­bil­i­ty in com­mu­ni­ty edu­ca­tion and out­reach on how tor report/notice chem­i­cal pol­lu­tants in their com­mu­ni­ty? Alter­na­tive­ly, what role do we have as cit­i­zens in uphold­ing the stan­dards of com­mu­ni­ties and noticed imbal­ances in our local environment?
  • While the pol­lu­tion of Tar Creek was cre­at­ed from his­toric min­ing prac­tices, under­stand­ing how a prac­tice will impact the future envi­ron­ment for gen­er­a­tions to come is key. How can we ensure the prac­tices we use today won’t cause com­pi­la­tions for future generations?