MIAMI, Okla. – Tar Creek, an 11-mile creek polluted with heavy metals from lead and zinc mining, snagged a spot on America’s “Most Threatened Rivers of 2022” for the second year in a row.
American Rivers – a nonprofit conservation organization that says its mission is to restore rivers, protect wildlife and revitalize local economies – has named Tar Creek in northeast Oklahoma as the 10th America’s most endangered. Other rivers listed include the Mississippi and the Colorado.
The annual list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” aims to draw attention to some of the rivers most at risk while promoting advocacy with local groups to make a difference in their communities. This is the 37th year of the listing campaign, which has helped remove outdated dams, provide protective river designations, and prevent harmful development and pollution.
“All life on this planet depends on clean, flowing rivers, so when rivers are in danger, we need to sound the alarm,” said Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers, in a statement. “America’s Most Endangered Rivers highlight the threats of climate change and injustice, and are a call for bold and urgent action.”
The non-profit organization reviews applications from local groups and individuals across the country for the list and chooses rivers based on the importance of the river to people and wildlife, the extent of the threat for the river and communities, and a decision within the next 12 months that the public can influence.
The greatest threat facing Tar Creek today is pollution left over from decades of lead and zinc mining in the former Tri-State Mining District that includes northeast Oklahoma, south -western Missouri and southeastern Kansas.
Tar Creek is a tributary of the Neosho River, which joins the Spring River to form the Grand River. Tar Creek and the Grand River provide an important source of drinking water for thousands of Oklahomans – the Great Lake of the Cherokees, created by the Pensacola Dam.
Mining began in the early 1900s and the district had become the world’s largest producer of zinc and lead by 1915, providing raw materials for bullets used in both world wars. The high levels of iron circulating in Tar Creek turn the water orange once it is exposed to oxygen in the air. When inundated, the orange water stains nearby trees, bridges and rock beds with a rusty varnish and leaves behind toxic pollutants.
Millions of gallons of acid mine water have poured into Tar Creek daily for the past 42 years, according to Rebecca Jim, who is Tar Creek’s guardian with the Waterkeeper Alliance, the world’s largest nonprofit organization. focuses only on drinking water. Jim is also co-founder and executive director of LEAD, which stands for Local Environmental Action Demanded Inc., a grassroots environmental group in Miami that advocates for Tar Creek.
“It affects every living thing in this watershed,” Jim said.
Jim co-founded the LEAD agency in 1997 following the Tar Creek Superfund site and initiated collaboration with the US Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies to clean up the site.
Tar Creek runs through one of the largest and most complex Superfund sites in the country. The Tar Creek Superfund site covers more than 40 square miles in northeast Oklahoma. It’s littered with piles of mountain cat, abandoned mining pits, and toxic heavy metals like lead, zinc, and cadmium.
“Hopefully with this designation, we can really shake the cages of agencies that might be doing something big, and tie it all together, not have them work independently,” Jim said. “We want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA) all at the table to discuss how they might solve the big problem. picture.”
The United States Environmental Protection Agency added the site to its National Priorities List in 1983, making it one of the oldest Superfund sites. Each year, the LEAD agency hosts a Tar Creek conference to educate residents about the cleanup efforts and ask questions of guests such as university researchers and health experts.
Nearly 3,000 residential properties at the Superfund site have been cleaned up so far, according to the EPA, which provides funding directly to Oklahoma’s Department of Environmental Quality through cooperative agreements to perform property cleanups. residential areas affected by the site.
Tar Creek has been off-limits to locals for decades, but last summer Jim found evidence of children swimming and fishing in the small creek.
Lead exposure in children can cause serious harm, including brain and nervous system damage, speech and hearing problems, and stunted development. A third of all Indigenous children were found to be affected by lead poisoning in the early 1990s, leading to remediation efforts. The dams were reported and then dismantled.
As a water guardian, Jim said she hopes to see children swimming, fishing and enjoying Tar Creek one day, but there’s still work to be done before that becomes a reality. Like a puzzle, agencies and groups worked on their own individual sections of the Tar Creek Superfund site, but Jim said no one looked at the big picture.
American Rivers and Jim think the groups need to pool their resources to save Tar Creek.
“Everyone has had their share of responsibility, but we want them to share it,” Jim said.
Call to action
America’s Most Threatened Rivers of 2022 calls for specific solutions on each of the rivers, amplifying the leadership of tribal nations and frontline defenders. The Grand River Dam Authority, the operator of the Pensacola Dam, is seeking a hydroelectric license renewal from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“Agencies and tribes with land adjacent to Tar Creek must sign a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ that binds all parties to commit to an integrated solution to address metal contamination and cleanup in the file of renewal of dam licenses,” American Rivers said in its final report. “Furthermore, the lake level should not be raised as proposed, as this will increase the redistribution of sediment-bound heavy metals during flooding.”
The American Rivers report also calls on EPA Region 6 Administrator Earthea Nance to order a new corrective investigation and human health risk assessment that further protects human health and the environment. .
“The health of communities around Tar Creek can no longer be ignored and cast aside as an accepted victim of historic mining,” the report said. “Tar Creek must be treated as an environmental justice issue, a priority of the Biden administration.”
The final goal is for Congress to fully and permanently reauthorize the “polluter pays” provision that helps fund cleanups of Superfund sites to ease the burden on taxpayers in affected communities, as well as increase fundraising efforts to clean up Tar Creek.