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Mapping the extent of the Tar Creek Superfund Site and other potential risks

Ottawa County, Oklahoma

Featured image for the project, Mapping the extent of the Tar Creek Superfund Site and other potential risks

Flood waters cover areas in Miami, Oklahoma, May 30, 2019 (Photo by J Pat Carter/LEAD Agency)


This project remains in progress, but you can view the interactive map developed by the project team here.


Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD Agency) is a community-led non-profit environmental justice organization founded in 1997. The organization  focuses on ensuring that the northeastern Oklahoma region is safe for all community members. LEAD Agency looks at not only the environment, but also at how community members interact with and are shaped by the environment and environmental changes. Additionally, they have longstanding partnerships with institutions and universities such as the Harvard School of Public Health, Tulsa University, and Mount Sinai Hospital.

LEAD Agency has an office in Ottawa County, the northeasternmost county in Oklahoma. The county’s 31,000 residents live in several small towns and surrounding rural areas, and while many residents identify as white, the county is home to nine federally recognized Indian tribes and Native Americans make up over 20% of the population. The community has a long history tied to mining. After 80 years of operating the world’s largest lead and zinc mine, the industry moved on in the 1960s and ‘70s, leaving behind 75 million tons of lead-contaminated tailings piles, also known as “chat”. For the last 40 years, one million gallons of mine water has discharged daily into Tar Creek.

LEAD Agency’s community science project is centered on impacts stemming from the Tar Creek Superfund Site. Designated in 1983 and encompassing the entire area of Ottawa County, OK, over $300 million dollars have been spent cleaning the Tar Creek Superfund Site. Nevertheless, children continue to suffer from lead poisoning, the creek is still orange, and chat piles loom on the horizon. LEAD Agency believes that the EPA’s conceptual site model, which determines the source, transport, and fate of all pollutants from the site and guides remediation efforts, is outdated and omits key factors that leave residents at risk of further health impacts.

Climatic changes pose a threat due to their increasingly variable flooding and rainfall patterns, but the additional potential stressor stemming from the Pensacola Dam would create further additional damage in Ottawa County. Located approximately 20 miles south of Ottawa County, the Pensacola Dam, also known as the Grand River Dam, is run by the Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA), a state agency responsible for managing the hydro-dam and other sources of energy production. The GRDA is proposing to raise the level of Grand Lake by two feet under a re-licensing agreement. The increased pool level may potentially  further exacerbate flooding in Ottawa County. 

With these threats in mind, LEAD Agency is prepared and energized to investigate the extent of the Tar Creek Superfund Site’s impact and other potential risks that pose a threat to the citizens of Ottawa County. Through this partnership with LEAD Agency and the AGU Thriving Earth Exchange, the results from this project will drive community advocacy efforts.


Project Goals

LEAD Agency’s main goal is to integrate three preexisting map sets into one interactive digital mapping tool. The resulting map will include information on heavy metal soil contamination (pre and post flooding), well water, groundwater, and more. The map’s intended use is to better communicate to policymakers, agency officials, and the general public the risks that the community faces.

The resulting map will not only inform residents of the potential health impacts of the mine tailings and flooding risks, it will also empower them to take action. With the data resulting from this study, LEAD Agency can present their findings to their local EPA office, EPA Region 6, and demonstrate why their conceptual site model is faulty. This will hopefully spur them to revise their conceptual site model of the superfund site and take stronger immediate action. Additionally, LEAD Agency can utilize the map to communicate to policy makers and GRDA how the potential proposal to raise the Grand Lake would directly harm Ottawa County.



         We anticipate that the project will run from January 2021 through January 2022, though the team would like to start as soon as possible and the project’s length will depend on the time required to complete the project. Developing maps early on will enable LEAD Agency to engage with policymakers, agency officials, and the general public sooner and activate more interest in their work.


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. 

All updates for this project

Project Team

Community Leaders

Rebecca Jim has served as LEAD Agency’s Executive Director since its incorporation in 1997. Holding a B.A. in Behavioral Sciences and M.A. in Education, Counseling, she was formerly the Indian Counselor for Miami Public Schools sponsoring the Cherokee Volunteer Society that started the Tar Creek Project. She asked Earl Hatley to serve as a consultant with the student group’s work, and then in 1997 they, with other residents, co-founded LEAD Agency. Rebecca is a member of the Cherokee Nation and is recognized as the Tar Creekkeeper by the Waterkeeper Alliance. She has co-edited Making a Difference at the Tar Creek Superfund Site, Community Efforts to Reduce Risk, and other publications featuring collected art, poetry, and writings that continue to inspire others to action. 


Earl L. Hatley is co-founder of LEAD Agency. He was the Executive Director for the Oklahoma Toxics Campaign when in 1993 he was asked by Rebecca Jim to become a technical advisor to her Cherokee Volunteer Society at the Miami High School. As more residents became involved, in  1997 LEAD Agency was incorporated. Earl was the first Board President for LEAD Agency until 2003 when he stepped down to become the Grand Riverkeeper. Earl still serves as the Grand Riverkeeper and technical leader for the staff at LEAD Agency. Earl is a well-trained organizer with 35 years experience in organizing and providing technical assistance to Indigenous and non-Indigenous non-profit groups and tribes in the US (including Alaska), with academic training that includes a MA in Political Science and ABD in Environmental Science.


Community Science Fellow

Jessica Tran is the Thriving Earth Exchange Community Science Fellow from the Science, Policy, and Engagement cohort. As a fellow, her role is to facilitate a collaborative, co-developed community science project that results in on-the ground impact in the local community and connects science to action. Jessica graduated in 2019 from Stony Brook University with a B.A. in Environmental Design, Policy, and Planning and a minor in Coastal Environmental Studies. Her previous experiences include researching community perceptions of climate change with the St. Paul Tribal Government’s Ecosystem Conservation Office, analyzing managed retreat policies through Stony Brook University’s Sustainability Department, and examining traditional ecological knowledge’s role in the southwest as a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar at Northern Arizona University. Jessica’s passion for her work stems from her identity as a first generation Asian American, and she finds resilience and strength in community, oceans, and art.


Additional Partner

Alexis Hidalgo is the Program Manager for Anthropocene Alliance, the nation’s largest coalition of frontline communities fighting for climate and environmental justice, of which the LEAD Agency is a part of. Alexis is based in Miami, Florida, and has been an environmental justice organizer since graduating from UC Berkeley in 2018. She hopes to support in any way possible the incredible work that Rebecca and Earl are doing to merge science and advocacy in their community.


Community Scientists

Dr. Katherine Meierdiercks is Associate Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Siena College, Loudonville NY, where she teaches courses in watershed management; environmental field techniques; environmental research methods; Geographic Information Systems (GIS); and analysis techniques for soil, air, and water. She received her B.S. in Civil Engineering from Tufts University and her Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from Princeton University. For the past several years, she and her students have been collecting field data and doing GIS mapping in the Kromma Kill and Patroon Creek watersheds, both tributaries to the Hudson River. And more recently, she and her students initiated and now run a COVID-19 wastewater surveillance program on campus.


Jim Kuipers is a mining environmental consultant, and the principal and a consulting engineer with Kuipers and Associates based in Wisdom, Montana. He received a B.S. from Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology in mineral process engineering, and is a registered professional engineer in Colorado and Montana. He grew up in a mining family and has worked on mining and environmental projects including project development, engineering design, permitting, operations, reclamation and closure, water treatment and financial assurance for over 40 years. Since 1996, his primary work has been as a consultant providing engineering and other technical expertise to governmental and non-governmental organizations relative to hardrock mining and other extractive resource environmental issues.

Collaborating Organization(s)

Anthropocene Alliance is the nation’s largest coalition of frontline communities fighting for climate and environmental justice composed of 70 communities in 22 states and Puerto Rico. They assist communities in understanding and addressing the impacts of flooding, water contamination, air pollution, and wildfires. The Anthropocene Alliance’s goal is to bring frontline communities together and amplify their voices so they can have safe, healthy, and equitable communities.


500 Women Scientists is a global, grassroots nonprofit organization working to make science more open, inclusive and accessible, by fighting racism, patriarchy, and oppressive societal norms. Their Fellowship for the Future amplifies and recognizes Women of Color leading community-based projects geared towards equity and social justice.


This project is supported by funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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