OTTAWA COUNTY, Okla. — For the first time, the Tar Creek Trustee Council is seeking restoration project ideas from the public to help with remediation efforts in Oklahoma’s portions of the Tri-State Mining District that have been affected by hazardous substances such as lead and zinc.
The Tar Creek trustees include the state of Oklahoma; the U.S. Department of Interior, represented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the Office of the Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and the Environment; and seven Native American tribes — the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma, the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, the Wyandotte Nation and the Seneca-Cayuga Nation.
The trustees were created under federal law as a decision-making body to manage public compensation in regards to the Northeast Oklahoma Mining Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Site, which is located within the Tri-State Mining District.
“We all have an equal voice on the council, and all of our decisions have to be unanimous,” said Jay Wright, a Tar Creek trustee representative and environmental programs manager with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. “We have to come an agreement on how to move forward with anything that we do. It involves some compromise, but we’re all moving towards the same goal.”
The Tri-State Mining District spans more than 2,500 square miles and includes portions of Southeast Kansas, Southwest Missouri and Northeast Oklahoma. Located in Ottawa County in Oklahoma is the Tar Creek Superfund site, which was an active lead and zinc mining area from the late 1800s until the 1970s.
Orange acid mine water began bubbling out from the abandoned bore holes near Commerce, Oklahoma, in 1979 and was discharged into nearby watersheds, causing significant environmental impacts that are still felt today.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added Tar Creek to its National Priorities List, the agency’s list of top-priority hazardous waste sites, in 1983. But even after spending millions of dollars on cleanup efforts over the past 40 years, Tar Creek continues to exhibit higher-than-normal levels of toxic heavy metals in fish, plants and invertebrates, according to a recent federal study.
“When Superfund sites are cleaned up by the EPA, what they’re really trying to do is alleviate the risk to public health and ecological health, but they don’t really take it back to what it was before the release of the hazardous substance that occurred — in this case, we’re talking about the mines,” Wright said. “Where Natural Resource Damages comes in, the law gives us (the trustees) the ability to go to those same responsible parties and collect funds for them for the loss of natural resource and, in the case of tribes, cultural services.”
Wright said the law also gives the Tar Creek trustees the opportunity to either work in collaboration with these federal and state agencies during the cleanup or to come behind the cleanup to enhance remediation efforts.
The public has until Nov. 18 to submit restoration project ideas that can be initiated over the next two years and be completed in five years.
Wright said the projects can be at the Tar Creek Superfund site or within the four counties in Northeast Oklahoma. The projects must have a terrestrial, aquatic and cultural restoration focus.
“One of the things that we’re looking for is it’s not just natural resources. For the tribes, it’s cultural resources, so that can mean the use of culturally significant plants or teaching tribal members how to identify culturally sensitive plants that they could gather,” Wright said. “One of the criteria we’re going to be using to judge projects is whether those cultural resources are somehow addressed along with natural resources.”
For more information on project requirements and to read the full 13-page document, go to fws.gov/southwest/es/oklahoma/documents/contaminants/Invitation.pdf.