MIAMI, Okla. —
When Mark Grigsby looks out over a five-acre tract of land near Tar Creek in Miami, he sees a golden opportunity for education and environmental cleanup.
Grigsby, who is the science and math department chairman at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, has worked for the past three years with the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma to establish a wetlands on NEO’s campus as part of a passive water treatment system. This system will reintroduce native grasses and plants to establish a wetlands area that could help clean up the creek, long polluted with mine water, by absorbing the heavy metals in it.
“This started out as a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for the Peoria Tribe which required them to have an educational partner,” Grigsby said. “They picked us for the grant, and that let us develop this land as wetland.”
During a walk-through of the site, Grigsby explained how water would move from Tar Creek into the constructed wetlands.
“We can pump out water from the creek into a holding pond that will flow to retention ponds, where plants that we have introduced could take up the heavy metals that pollute the creek,” he said. “The water is then pumped back into the creek, where it will be tested for levels of heavy metals. Hopefully, it is safer than when it came in.”
According to a news release issued by the EPA in 2012, the Peoria Tribe was issued a grant for $118,000, which was earmarked for monitoring surface water quality on tribal lands. Grigsby estimated that $250,000 will be spent on this project, including additional grant money from the EPA. The project was started by the tribe in 2011, and included waivers from the Grand River Dam Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the work.
The pollution in Tar Creek comes from decades of lead and zinc mining in the area that resulted in the EPA stepping in to initiate its biggest Superfund cleanup site.
“When they stopped mining, and thus stopped pumping the shafts, the water just sat there and absorbed the heavy metals, and eventually that was the water that came out into Tar Creek,” Grigsby said. “By the 1970s, we knew we had a serious problem here.”
The EPA put the mining area, which included Picher, Cardin and Hockerville, on its National Priorities List in 1983. In 2008, the EPA put $60 million into relocating residents from these towns in the middle of what became known as the Tar Creek Superfund Site. Cleanup of chat — a gravel-like byproduct of lead and zinc mining — began soon after.
Despite the EPA’s efforts to plug deep-aquifer wells and to remove mine tailings from the surface of the land, Tar Creek is still polluted with heavy metals including zinc, lead and cadmium. Grigsby said a casual observer could tell the damage just by looking at the trees overlooking Tar Creek near the site.
“Iron tends to wash out upstream until it floods,” he said. “But when it does flood, the creek will turn orange with rust. It then sticks to the trees. That’s just one of the ways that this area has been impacted by the closed mines.”
Construction started on the wetlands in the spring of 2013 with the digging of four ponds, 18 to 24 inches deep, where native fish and plants will be introduced. The main holding pond, which takes up most of the area, has been cleared and equipped with the pumping system for the creek. Grigsby now is researching what plants to introduce into the area in the spring. After the plants are introduced, the wetlands site should be completed during this summer, he said.
“There is enough work that shows that plants can take up some amount of metals,” Grigsby said. “If we can show that the plants we introduce through this wetlands project help clean up the water, it will show the EPA that they have options, natural options, for cleanup assistance.”
Grigsby said that by 2015, plants such as cattails and bluestem grass will populate the wetlands like they once did around Miami.
“It won’t look like a lawn, but it will look like it should,” he said. “It will be a wetlands like it was before it was developed by the city. If the plants do absorb enough metals to help clean up the water, we will have to decide how to dispose of them afterward, but that’s a bridge we’d be happy to cross when it comes.”
In addition to the benefit to the local environment, Grigsby said, students attending NEO will use the site for educational purposes.
“We are a two-year school, not a research facility, but we will still be using this land for studies,” Grigsby said. “We have a great opportunity to take our basic biology students in the field right here on campus and give them a hands-on lesson in local nature.”
A gazebo will be constructed south of the holding ponds to be used as an outdoor classroom.
For Grigsby, the wetlands project represents a winning situation for NEO and the Peoria Tribe.
“They did the legwork in getting the grant prepared and approved,” he said. “The school, and the creek, will get the full benefit from their hard work.”
THE TAR CREEK SUPERFUND SITE was the subject of the 2009 documentary “Tar Creek,” which covered the long effort to clean up mining waste in the area, and the controversy surrounding the federal buyout of the residents of Picher, Cardin and Hockerville.