A new study up for public comment looks at contaminated water, fish, plants and animals at the Tar Creek Superfund Site, but critics say the study gives the site’s namesake short shrift.
It’s a new chapter in the 40-year Tar Creek Superfund Site saga, which up to now has focused primarily on land-based recovery projects.
Called a Remedial Investigation Report, the study confirms that heavy metal contamination is negatively affecting aquatic invertebrates like freshwater mussels and insects like mayflies, and that some plants and fish contain extremely high levels of lead, cadmium and zinc and should not be consumed by people.
But the river watchers say the study didn’t look far enough and likely will lead to future delays.
The long-awaited study is the Environmental Protection Agency’s first remediation step toward working on northeastern Oklahoma’s waterways — what they call Operating Unit 5 or OU5. Previous and ongoing phases are OU1 to OU4.
“It’s a long time coming and it’s a disappointment more than anything,” said Rebecca Jim, the Tar Creek Keeper with the Waterkeeper Alliance and executive director of the Local Environmental Action Demanded agency.
“We believed that OU5 was going to be ‘the rest of the story’ and now it’s only the water, the banks and what’s in the water and living on the banks. If you walk a foot away from the stream, that’s not part of (the EPA) story, not the riparian zones and not up to the high-water mark or flood areas.”
Floods during the spring and summer of 2019 that pushed creeks out of their banks and deposited silt from the state line through Miami to Grand Lake should illustrate why a wider view is necessary, she said.
“Every three days, the equivalent of what ran down the Animas River in Colorado is coming down Tar Creek,” said Earl Hatley, Grand River Keeper with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a co-founder of LEAD Agency and environmental consultant to Native American groups.
The mine disaster in 2015 at Gold King mine that turned Colorado’s Animas River yellow drew immediate response and public outrage. Tar Creek has been running yellow since 1979, he said.
“There is not enough emphasis on an immediate remedy on Tar Creek. ... This new OU is all still in the planning stages and under current funding levels might take 12 years just to stop the acid mine flow at Tar Creek. We can’t wait another 12 years and then start looking outside the stream banks,” he said.
“We appreciate the funding, the $75 million, we do — but as has always been the case, it’s not enough and there is no urgency,” he said.
The Tar Creek Superfund site is the Oklahoma portion of the long-abandoned lead and zinc mining area of the Tri-State Mining District, which covers 2,500 square miles in parts of southwest Missouri, southeast Kansas, and Ottawa County.
“We’ve known for a fact that the plants and animals are contaminated,” Hatley said. “It has been studied by LEAD Agency and we’ve told them that people harvesting those plants are being exposed to high levels of heavy metals.”
Hatley said people picking wild strawberries, pecans, walnuts, wild onions or other plants should assume they’re contaminated.
Public comments on the 3,000-page report are due on Oct. 18, but the report is not online at the EPA website and has been available only at the public library in Miami or at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality headquarters office in Oklahoma City.
The full study, along with a report summary, is posted at tulsaworld.com.
A previously streamed video of a community meeting at Miami by the LEAD Agency also is on the site.
Environmental consultant Terrie Boguski, on contract with the EPA-funded Technical Assistance Service for Communities program, explained the report summary for people at the meeting.
EPA Region 6 officials were not able to immediately comment on the criticisms, but Boguski noted in her presentation that all comments on the Remedial Investigation Report are welcome and should be sent to Janetta Coats, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In essence, the report confirms high levels of heavy metals in the water, substrate, plants, invertebrates, fish and mammals in portions of seven key waterways in the Tar Creek Superfund site. In some areas, the contamination is minimal, however.
It also notes that a remaining portion of the study, the part that assesses the potential risk to humans who might consume the animals or plants or ingest the waters from those areas, should be completed sometime in 2020.
“That will be a very important report for the community to look at,” Boguski said.
The report references samples from Fourmile Creek as a “background” source, meaning samples from that creek are “unaffected by historical mining activities.” It provided the control group against which the seven waterways are gauged.
Included are Tar Creek, Lytle Creek, Elm Creek, Beaver Creek, Lost Creek, Lower Spring River and the Neosho River.
The highest levels of contamination were found in Tar Creek, Lytle Creek and Elm Creek and documents significantly high concentrations of lead and cadmium in mussels, aquatic plants and fish.
The amount of lead in a fish carcass (as opposed to fillets) was up to 10 times what was found in the background stream, according to the report. Fish fillets were listed as containing 3 times more cadmium, 4 times the lead and 5 times more zinc.
Lead in aquatic plants such as duckweed and arrowroot — commonly used as traditional foods — were 7,618 times what was in the background stream and contained more than 100 times the concentrations of cadmium and zinc. A raccoon from the Elm Creek area might hold 22 times as much lead and twice as much zinc and cadmium as one found along Fourmile Creek, according to the report.
With the extent of the contamination unknown and the breadth of flooding recently and over the past 40 years through Miami and to the upper end of Grand Lake, Hatley said he believes a separate and new effort is warranted that would tie in a currently mandated relicensing of the Grand River Dam Authority with Pensacola Dam and the effort to clean up the waters of northeastern Oklahoma.
“It all flows together and ends up in the upper end of Grand Lake,” he said. “Instead of raising the lake level, they should be doing an (Environmental Impact Statement) that covers all the waterways and they should be dredging out and remediating the upper end of the lake instead of trying to raise the lake level two feet.”
Jim said it’s important for anyone familiar with the area to look at the report and offer comments, including people who may have lived in the area long ago and now live out-of-state.
For example, someone might remember activities near Fourmile Creek that would show it’s not as “untouched” as is thought, she said.
“You might remember something your grandfather said about a thing that happened in a place the EPA isn’t aware of, or remember a seep in a location the EPA doesn’t know about,” she said. “Anything people know that has to do with the mines and water will help.”