Tar Creek Superfund site requires much more cleanup, money
BY OMER GILLHAM World Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
9/27/11 at 8:34 AM
MIAMI, Okla. - Even though more than $150 million has been spent to clean up the Tar Creek Superfund site and to relocate families, millions more are needed to protect children from lead poisoning and to restore the land to usefulness, government officials said.
Environmental officials and Ottawa County residents gathered last week in Miami, Okla., at the 13th National Tar Creek Conference.
Sponsored by the Oklahoma-based group LEAD (Local Environmental Action Demanded) Agency, the conference attracted 100 people, including officials from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, tribal leaders and area residents.
More than a decade has passed since some of the first homes were remediated to clean up lead-contaminated yards in an attempt to decrease high blood-lead levels in Picher and Cardin, two towns at the center of the Tar Creek Superfund site.
The Superfund site involves a 40-square-mile area in Ottawa County in far northeast Oklahoma.
Conference speakers included Tyler Powell, who serves as the office director for Oklahoma Secretary of the Environment.
Powell said the state remains committed to finishing the job at Tar Creek, but there are enormous obstacles to address.
"Just removing the chat piles alone could take 30 years if you could move out 100 train car loads each day," Powell said. "But we are not leaving the chat piles. We are going to restore the land to what it was."
Chat tailings are the gravel-like remains of decades of lead and zinc mining in Picher, Cardin and Commerce. Mining in the area ended in the early 1970s.
Meanwhile, abandoned lead mines are deteriorating, which means that subsidence is inevitable in some areas, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report.
Additionally, the underground mines are leaking water heavy with lead, zinc and cadmium into Tar Creek, which runs along the west side of Picher. The metals turn the water a rusty orange.
In December 2010, the Tulsa World reported that about $46 million had been spent to voluntarily relocate families in Picher and Cardin while leaving behind chat piles measuring 10 stories tall in some places.
Meanwhile, between 1996-2003, the government spent $100 million to replace tainted soil near homes, playgrounds and other areas.
While the relocation of Picher and Cardin families is essentially complete including demolition, the Superfund site still exists and is being blamed for dumping heavy metal into the Grand Lake watershed, said Earl Hatley, LEAD Agency member and conference organizer.
"The lead is being dumped into Grand Lake, and once the cadmium and zinc separate they are carried as far as Lake Hudson," Hatley said.
In 2008, state officials issued a warning to fishermen, cautioning them to limit the amount of fish eaten from Grand Lake due to lead levels. The warning involved elevated levels of lead for carp and buffalo, DEQ records show.
Robert Sullivan, a project manager for the EPA, said remediation efforts could be finished with the final push to remediate Ottawa County yards.
Sullivan said the EPA is spending an estimated $3.2 million to remediate yards in Peoria, Afton, Fairland and Miami.
An estimated 400 yards remain to be remediated at a cost of about $8,000 each. Remediation involves removing lead-contaminated soil from a given yard and replacing it with clean soil.
"We are estimating that this $3.2 million could finish the remediation," Sullivan said, with work beginning this week in Miami.
Sullivan said that yard remediation is the single most important factor to lowering the blood-lead levels of Tar Creek children.
"We have seen a 90 percent drop from 25 micrograms of lead per deciliter to less than 10 micrograms per deciliter," Sullivan said.
Conference organizer Rebecca Jim said the decrease is promising, but the dangers of lead poisoning remain for some communities.
"It's not over," Jim said. "Parents still need to take their children for testing as a precaution and to be informed."
One of the solutions to cleaning up contaminated mining water within the Tar Creek watershed involves a $1.2 million project led by the University of Oklahoma.
Professor Robert Nairn said a passive remediation system is capturing and removing 55,000 kilograms of iron each year from contaminated water from an affected area near Commerce, south of Picher and Cardin.
Becoming operational in 2008, the system involves a group of 10 ponds that capture and filter contaminated mining water, removing lead, cadmium, nickel and zinc before the water is released back into Tar Creek.
"This is a totally passive system driven by gravity without pumps or fossil fuels," Nairn said. "The water is a lot cleaner before being released. This is the first step in making the waters of Tar Creek run clear again."
Original Print Headline: Unfinished business
Omer Gillham 918-581-8301
Empty lots and a mountain of chat are all that is left in most of Picher. GARY CROW / For the Tulsa World
Abandoned buildings remain after the Picher buyout. GARY CROW / For the Tulsa World
The damaged storefront of an abandoned building looks out onto Picher's once most often-traveled road. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World file
Dr. Bob Nairm, with the University of Oklahoma School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science, talks about the sediment in Grand Lake at the Tar Creek conference held last week. GARY CROW / For the Tulsa World
An abandoned church crumbles in Picher after buyouts in the Superfund site. GARY CROW / For the Tulsa World