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Community Insights: Mapping the pollution to create the solution

The Tar Creek in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, runs directly through a 40-square-mile Superfund site, full of giant mounds of toxic mining waste—a fine, white sand-and-gravel mix known as “chat,” easily blown away by the breezethat is polluting the entire county’s drinking water, yards and fields. 

Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency, a community-led non-profit environmental justice organization, has been advocating for a cleanup of the Tar Creek since 1996. The organization recently initiated a project with Thriving Earth Exchange to create a mapping tool to clearly and unequivocally show policymakers, state officials and the general public the risks that the community faces when the heavily polluted Tar Creek floods, as it has been doing more and more. That flooding could be exacerbated if the state has its way and raises the level of Grand Lake to improve energy production.

We sat down with LEAD Agency members Earl Hatley, Rebecca Jim and Martin Lively to hear more about the strengths this community is relying on as they face these challenges.

 

How would you describe the Ottawa County area to someone who has never been there?

Ottawa County is where the Great Plains meets the Ozark Mountains, and that contrast is really beautiful. The contrast is also a metaphor for Ottawa County. This is the place where a lot of different people, cultures and ecosystems have combined. Nine Native tribes were moved here, living alongside settlers in a very small area, blending and mixing over time. That complicated undercurrent can make describing this place challenging. 

If you looked at Ottawa County on Google Maps, you would see that Tar Creek is wounded and bleeding, because it runs through those chat piles. You would wonder how much chat is blowing waste onto homes, hay bales and fields, giving our children lead poisoning. Little pink dots represent yards where the lead has been dug up and hauled away by the EPA, but there are lots and lots of houses that don’t have little pink dots. 

 

What do you see as unique strengths of this community?

We have good schools, competent teachers, and students that are really able to achieve. There are fewer kids now that have been affected by lead poisoning, so we have a lot of hope for the future. Local tribes are using their federal recognition to improve the community, building strong health care services and even a new movie theater. A stronger sense of community is starting to take root, and we’re seeing signs that this community wants to be proud of itself, and wants to create a new relationship with the land along Tar Creek. 

Also, we Okies are conservative and stubborn, and when the community clearly sees the problem, it will trigger an urgent call to action, creating an unstoppable force demanding that the EPA and state start a true cleanup of Tar Creek. One person who attended a recent LEAD Agency meeting came away insisting, “They’re not doing enough. We need to make them do more.” 

 

What do you see as its unique or surprising challenges?

Not everyone is aware of the health effects. Up until recently, most folks didn’t think the Superfund site had any impact on their health. We have a massive public health failure, with most doctors unable to identify symptoms of toxicity when diagnosing problems like kidney disease or low IQ levels. People say, “Nobody ever dropped dead from lead around here.” But Tar Creek goes right through here, into our drinking water, and no one, the EPA or the doctors, is helping connect the dots. 

My [Martin’s] grandfather, who lived among those chat piles, used to joke, “Who knows how much smarter I could have been if I hadn’t lived here?” We know these metals have harmed so many people. The health impacts are immense, and it’s all tied to the creek we are sitting in the middle of. 

 

What changes do you think your project will bring now, and 20 years down the line?

A lot of people don’t know what’s coming from rising lake levels and climate change, and our map will connect them to flood experts who can to help them deal with it in a real way. There’s so little that we have control over, but we can at least give people the tools to get themselves out of that bad water before it hits them. 

We can make the EPA stop the bleeding from the chat, but that’s a long time coming. This project can help sooner, and it’s one of the key pieces LEAD Agency needs to demonstrate the synergy between the Superfund site and the flooding. In a more general way, we also want to open conversations about issues adjacent to this problem, ask questions and offer ideas and suggestions. The Tar Creek cleanup is at the heart of a lot of other initiatives right now, and will be the foundation upon which the community builds.

In 20 years, we’re going to have a clean creek running through town, with kids playing in it. The Tar Creek Fish Tournament will be a yearly event, and maybe we could even eat the fish we catch. And the orange stains on the bushes and trees, from the floodwaters, will be gone. A new generation will not have even known the orange, all they will know is a beautiful Tar Creek flowing through the pecan trees, and the community will be thriving because that demeaning feeling of having a polluted creek will be over. 

mgoodwin editor

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