MIAMI, Okla. — Leaders from the Quapaw, Shawnee and Eastern Shawnee tribes brought to light the efforts Native Americans are making to bring restoration to the area’s natural resources during the first day of the 21st National Environmental Conference at Tar Creek.
The two-day event, hosted by Rebecca Jim and others from the LEAD Agency, brings together federal, tribal and local leaders to discuss the most up-to-date information concerning the Tar Creek Superfund site and the old Tri-State Mining District.
The event continues today in the student center at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami.
Protecting the fish
Deborah Dotson, water quality officer with the Environmental Department of the Eastern Shawnee, talked on Tuesday about her efforts to test the waters and especially fish within the tribe’s jurisdiction for traces of heavy metals.
Dotson tests on a yearly basis fish found in Spring River, one of the leading tributaries of Grand Lake.
Partnering with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dotson harvests fish from Spring River using an electroshock method.
She sends whole fish as well as fillets for testing at a lab in Washington state. Fish tested are either predators or bottom feeders, and include bass, suckerfish, crappie, catfish, smallmouth buffalo fish and carp.
The fish are tested for mercury, methyl mercury, lead, cadmium, zinc and arsenic. To date, Dotson’s findings regarding mercury in the fish echo findings by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. The Grand Lake area, specifically Ottawa and Delaware counties, do not have a mercury advisory issued concerning the consumption of fish.
Dotson said that while suckerfish, drum, carp and smallmouth carp found in Spring River are most likely to contain lead, fish normally consumed by the public, including bass and crappie, are least likely to contain lead.
Dotson said how a person cleans and prepares a fish can also determine the amount of metals. She said lead content appears in fish that are cooked or prepared whole, because metals apparently accumulate in the bones.
'Water is life'
Ben Barnes, the second chief for the Shawnee Tribe, spoke about his connection to the Tar Creek Superfund site, using it as an example for why people should take care of everything they consider sacred.
He said many around the world, thanks in part to the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, are beginning to see as natives how water, animals and places are not things but entities with rights of their own.
“We have the same responsibilities (to them) as we do when talking about people,” Barnes said. “Water is life; it’s not an abstract thought. We talk about it as a person because it lives inside of us.”
He lamented the four countries that did not sign on to accept the declaration: Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
He encouraged the Native Americans present at the conference to stand up for the rights of indigenous people.
“(Remember) I am someone, and I can do something,” Barnes said, adding that like a single spark that starts a fire, native people can provide the spark to change the world. “Activate, motivate and do something, because you are somebody.”
Barnes was introduced by James Walkingstick, an Afton student who is in his second year at Harvard University.
Walkingstick recently served as a delegate to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Walkingstick encouraged those present to find ways to include the younger generations in the conversations regarding land and water rights.
Cleaning up Tar Creek
Craig Kreman, environmental assistant director for the Quapaw Nation, spoke about the work being done by tribal members in the Operational Unit 4, regarding mine and mill waste, called chat, within the Superfund site.
Kreman told how he has 60 employees working with the tribe’s Quapaw Services Agency, who are working on a day-to-day basis to clean up former mining land.
“We are working on the land and moving it forward, taking it back to usable land,” Kreman said.
Part of Kreman’s report discussed how the tribe has cleaned up land within its trust known as the Catholic 40 — land along Beaver Creek near the tribe’s powwow grounds. In that area alone, the tribe cleared 107,000 tons of mine waste and capped off two mine shafts.
Other sites being cleaned up by the tribe include Beaver Creek North, Distal 7 North, Distal 13, Distal 10-12-12b, CB199 and the Marketable Piles project.
To date, in all, the tribe has cleaned up 1.6 million tons of source materials, capped 30 mine shafts and cleared 300 acres of land.
This fall, tribal officials will begin working in the Bird Dog area. The project is expected to take three to four years and will involve more than 700,000 tons of material. Some will be capped on-site, while others will be taken to the tribe’s Central Mill Tailings Pond Repository located on 40 Road, near Tar Creek. That property will hold 10 million tons of waste and will most likely need to be expanded to the west.
Kreman said the tribe has some success using chat in asphalt because the oil encapsulates the minerals. He said that within a 100-mile radius of Tar Creek, much of the asphalt going into projects uses chat as a filler material.