By Greg Grisolano
MIAMI, Okla. — Members of the Harvard School of Public Health are in Miami sampling homes and soil for heavy-metal contamination that may have been left behind by flooding earlier this month.
“We have brought in some top-notch scientists to find out if there is a problem,” said Earl Hatley, a designated Grand Riverkeeper and a member of Local Environmental Action Demanded, a nonprofit environmental group.
“We brought in $100,000 worth of equipment and some of these scientists to answer these questions for the community.”
The scientists are collecting dust and soil samples from homes and yards. They are looking for a full range of heavy metals, byproducts of runoff from chat piles and other mine wastes that cover much of the landscape in Northeast Oklahoma. Of particular concern will be lead, zinc, cadmium and manganese.
“Tar Creek itself drains heavy metals into the Neosho River, so when it floods, it is reasonable to suspect the metals go out in the flooded areas,” Hatley said.
More than 600 homes in Miami and 100 outside the city limits were damaged or destroyed when the Neosho River pushed out of its banks in the first week of this month.
Jim Shine, associate professor of aquatic chemistry at the Harvard School of Public Health, is coordinating the Miami effort, which is part of a larger study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Health Sciences.
“We’re going north and south,” Shine said. “We’ve even been past the 22nd Street bridge, so we’ve been up past where there’s no evidence of flooding. We take sediment profiles and surface soil samples moving away from the creek. By measuring the concentrations (of the metals) we can determine where it came from.”
Shine said the flood provides an opportunity to see how disasters are affecting the spread of hazardous mine waste from the Tar Creek Superfund Site.
“Metals are migrating off the site,” he said. “It’s a matter of how fast and by what mechanism.”
Members of Shine’s group were in Miami in mid-May to test for metals in flood-plain soils, looking at how metals migrated from Tar Creek and into yards and homes in that area. Now, they’re back again.
“We’ve revisited the exact same sites,” he said. “We can see that layer of new sediment that’s been deposited.”
While Shine said it’s too soon to know the results of the survey, preliminary results haven’t given cause for alarm.
“So far, the levels are low enough not to be of any imminent concern,” he said. “That’s a good thing. But again, the larger issue is we want to understand how do things migrate away from mining sites.”
Hatley said the Harvard School of Public Health also is studying the effects of heavy metals on mothers and their newborns.
“We’re finding, for the most part, that children are born lead-free in this area,” Hatley said. “We’re thinking exposure comes when they’re toddlers, crawling around the floor and playing in the yard. That exposure stays with you for life, because the metals absorb into your bone marrow.”
Hatley and Shine said the contaminants ultimately end up in Grand Lake.
“I seriously think that Grand Lake is probably our largest chat pile,” Hatley said. “When you think about it, the dam was completed in 1940, and the mining started in 1887. For all those years, they were pumping the mine waste directly into Tar Creek, and coring so far of Grand Lake shows there are heavy metals in the sediment.”
Looking for answers
Earl Hatley said the health problems associated with exposure to heavy metals found in the Tar Creek Superfund Site include heart, renal and lung disease.
“One of the questions LEAD Agency asked when we started our door-to-door survey (of homes in Miami) was: Why are there so many kidney dialysis machines in a town of 9,000 people? It seemed kind of over the top.”