QUAPAW, Okla. —
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has signed off on a plan that will permit the Quapaw Tribe to clean up the Catholic 40 mining site southeast of Quapaw.
“This is the first cooperative agreement in the nation where a tribe will perform a remedial action on property that they own,” said Rafael Casanova, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the Catholic 40 site.
In a statement released by the tribe, Chairman John Berrey said: “The Quapaw Tribe will be here forever, and we have a vested interest in the land and in the interests of our neighbors.
“Therefore, we are anxious to demonstrate that the Quapaw Tribe is the appropriate stakeholder to perform remediation activities on tribal properties and, thereby, help restore the land to uses that will benefit the future of the tribe and the local community.”
The Quapaw Tribe started hauling chat — a gravel-like byproduct of lead and zinc mining — from the site on Tuesday. The chat is being moved to a repository along Douthat Road southwest of the former mining town of Picher.
The Catholic 40 site, which consists of about 40 acres, is part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site in Northeast Oklahoma, which covers nearly 40 square miles. Cleanup of the Superfund site, which has been ongoing for three decades, has focused on the removal of contaminated mine tailings from the surface of the land and the plugging of deep-aquifer wells.
Efforts to prevent acid mine drainage from entering Tar Creek, which flows through the former mining field, were attempted in the 1980s. They proved to be unsuccessful. The tailings are contaminated with heavy metals, including lead, zinc and cadmium. The metals can adversely affect public health and aquatic life.
The Superfund site also is heavily undermined, which led to the buyout of Picher and Cardin, and the relocation of their residents in 2006. Also bought out, beginning in 2009, was Treece, Kan., a former mining community north of Picher.
Historical records show that the Catholic 40 site is where the Catholic Church constructed a church and boarding school in 1892 on land that was part of the Quapaw Reservation. The church and school started soon after lead and zinc mining spread from Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas into Northeast Oklahoma. The church and school closed in the 1920s when the tribe decided to no longer help fund their operation.
Members of the Quapaw Tribe attended the church and school. A cemetery exists there, along with the ruins of the church and school, which were demolished in the 1960s. The Quapaw Tribe intends to clean up the land and preserve the historic features that remain, according to a statement released by the tribe.
Limited mining took place at the site after the church and school were closed. It became a reprocessing site for chat in the 1950s. Chat was hauled to the site, and residual metals in the chat were recovered.
Casanova said the EPA is funding the cleanup of the site and will provide oversight. A recent estimate placed that cost at more than $2 million.
“The site has a chat base as opposed to a chat pile,” he said. “The tribe will remove the chat base and restore the property. They will regrade the land, but no soil will be brought in.”
The hauling of the chat is to be completed by January, he said. Included in the project is the construction of an embankment along Beaver Creek. The chat base, he said, borders the creek.
Casanova said he cannot say whether this cooperative agreement with the tribe will lead to other cleanup agreements
“But it will increase their technical capacity to perform work and do removal actions on other sites,” he said.
Tim Kent, environmental director for the tribe, said in a prepared statement that the tribe has a staff of engineers, scientists and construction managers, and that they have most of the construction equipment necessary to perform the work.
Kent said the tribe has worked with the EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas to use existing site plans so that consistency among various site projects is maintained. The tribe also has developed work plans required by the EPA.
THE QUAPAW TRIBE gave the land for St. Mary’s Catholic Church and boarding school to the board of directors of the Catholic Indian Missions. The paperwork to make that land transfer happen was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 15, 1908. The church deeded the land back to the tribe in 1975, according to historical records.