MIAMI, Okla. — Forty years after Tar Creek first came to the nation’s attention because of water pollution, a series of sediment, tissue and water samples collected throughout the Superfund Site continue to show higher-than-normal levels of heavy metals in fish, plants, mammals and invertebrates.

That could soon be addressed.

The results of a federal study, which was released Sept. 18, were part of the discussion Tuesday night in Miami. The public has until Friday to comment on the study, which is part of the ongoing cleanup of the Superfund Site in Northeast Oklahoma.

Among the findings:

• More than 90% of the 216 sediment samples taken from Tar Creek had cadmium and zinc levels higher than what would be expected when compared with a nearby stream that was not affected by mining. More than 86% of all the Tar Creek sediment samples had high lead levels. And more than 80% of the nearly 2,000 surface water samples collected in Tar Creek had levels of lead higher than a comparable creek outside the Superfund area.

• Between 50% and 70% of the 115 sediment samples collected along the lower Spring River tested high for lead, and 17% of 381 surface water samples were high for lead.

• All of the plant samples collected and 86% of all mussel samples collected from six bodies of water throughout the Superfund Site had levels of lead higher than the comparable stream.

“They are loaded, which shows there is a great need to do work,” said Rebecca Jim, referring to the sediment, water and tissue samples. Jim is executive director of the nonprofit advocacy and educational organization Local Environmental Action Demanded Agency, or LEAD Agency. She’s been leading the environmental justice efforts at the Tar Creek Superfund site since 1997.

“It is very disappointing,” she said of the results. “One day, it is going to run clean, but it is going to take a concentrated effort to do that. ... It is so damaged, and it will be a long time until it is improved. It is just like a sore that never does get healed. It’s a gaping wound, and it just keeps flowing out toxic water.”

A public meeting was held Tuesday at the Miami Civic Center by the LEAD Agency to discuss the latest study and encourage the community to weigh in before the Oct. 18 deadline. People can comment on the study and suggest anything that may have been overlooked.

“The comments help us,” Jim said. “They may have a great idea nobody has thought of. They may have additional information nobody knows. Somebody out there may know a thing that can help make this better.”

Terrie Boguski, senior associate with the consulting firm Skeo Solutions, presented the findings at the meeting and told the community that their opinions and insight matter.

“If you don’t comment, then the EPA doesn’t know what you’re thinking,” Boguski said. “It’s important to hear the people’s voice in decision making.”

Attempts to reach the EPA for comment were unsuccessful.

Tar Creek history

Tar Creek, one of the oldest and most complex Superfund Sites in the nation, is a former lead and zinc mining area that was part of the Tri-State Mining District, which included Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas. Mining started in the Tar Creek area in the 1890s, and while it was mostly played out after World War II, some work continued until about 1970.

Along with the nearly 181 million tons of ore removed, millions of tons of chat were left behind after the decades of mining ended, and mountains of chat piles and mine waste up to 200 feet high covered thousands of acres. Also left behind were more than 1,000 mine shafts and more than 100,000 exploratory boreholes.

Forty years ago, in 1979, acidic water from underground mines began bubbling to the surface near Commerce and flowed into Tar Creek, killing most of the life downstream and running red as a result of contamination.

More than 40 square miles were included when the EPA added Tar Creek to the federal National Priorities List, making it a Superfund Site, in 1983.

In all, more than $300 million has been spent so far to investigate and clean up the area through this spring, according to EPA, which has completed cleanup of 3,000 residential properties, bought out Picher and three other communities, removed approximately 3.8 million tons of mining waste and affected soils, and plugged more than 80 abandoned wells to protect groundwater.

“They have worked on the hazards,” Jim said, “but they have not worked on the watershed.”

Earlier this year, the EPA also approved a draft plan for the continued cleanup of Tar Creek indicating the agency planned to spend approximately $15 million each fiscal year over the next five years for remediation. That can be combined with settlement money from the mining companies. About $62 million has been received from responsible parties so far, and about $20 million of that remained this summer, according to the EPA, making nearly $100 million more available for remediation over the next five years.

OU5 Investigation

Information presented this week focused on what is known as Operable Unit 5, which refers to districts within the larger Superfund Site and specifically to the plan to focus on sediment and surface water problems, including not just Tar Creek itself but also Elm Creek, Beaver Creek, Lost Creek, and parts of the Neosho and Spring rivers that soon meet to form Grand Lake.

Water, sediment and tissue samples also were taken from Fourmile Creek, a watershed just to the west of the Superfund Site that was not affected by mining. It is near the Craig County line and offered perspective on what the background levels of some of the heavy metals might be.

Scientists studied invertebrates — animals without backbones that live at least part of their lives on the bottom of the creeks in the study area, such as amphipods, mussels and midges. Aquatic plants sampled were duckweed and arrowroot, which are both used by nearby Native American tribes. Samples also were collected from fish, frogs and raccoons.

In all, the scientists collected 484 sediment samples; 3,147 surface water samples; 368 fish samples; and 72 plant and animal tissue samples.

The report found lead, cadmium and zinc levels frequently elevated in sediment, water and tissue samples from all six streams in the Superfund Site when compared with Fourmile Creek.

Among the other findings:

• All of the sieved sediment samples and nearly all of the unsieved sediment samples collected from Elm and Beaver creeks were higher in lead, zinc and cadmium than samples from Fourmile Creek. More than 80% of all sediment samples from the lower Spring River were high for cadmium.

• While none of the water samples for the Neosho River exceeded Fourmile Creek when tested for cadmium, 10% of the lead samples and 17% of the zinc samples showed elevated levels. Three percent of the water samples from the lower Spring River exceeded the baseline for cadmium, as did 17% of the samples for lead and 94% of the zinc samples.

• In all, 59% of the fish carcasses from the six affected watersheds had more cadmium than the highest level of cadmium found in any one fish from Fourmile Creek, 50% were higher for lead and 35% for zinc.

• All the plant samples from the six streams were higher for lead, 94% were higher for zinc and 82% were higher for cadmium.

• Half the bullfrogs sampled in the Superfund Site had higher lead levels than were found in Fourmile Creek, as did 11% of the raccoons, while 58% of the raccoons sampled for zinc exceeded the levels found in raccoons along Fourmile Creek.

“Higher levels of contaminants are being found in Tar Creek and Elm Creek, lower levels in Lost Creek and Neosho River,” said Boguski. “And there’s significantly high concentrations of contaminants found in the plant tissues and the mussels tissues. The conclusion of the ecological risk assessment is that the contaminants — cadmium, lead and zinc — are negatively affecting the benthic invertebrates in the study area.”

Boguski said an ecological risk assessment and a human health risk assessment also are traditionally part of the remedial investigation report. The ecological study is completed, and the human health study will be issued by the EPA next year.

Human health risk

The EPA will use the information when it assesses risks to people, as well as potential exposure scenarios for the general public, tribal members and workers.

James Walkingstick, who is of Cherokee descent, attended the discussion and said that he’s concerned for the tribal community members who regularly use native plants such as arrowroot for things such as medicine.

“I plan on submitting a comment, and potentially, I plan to dig into the relation with the tribes, what the tribes are doing with the EPA and collaborate with them,” he said. “I’d like to see more studies done outside of those tribes, mainly downstream, like Cherokee Nation land because we do harvest wild onions where I live.”

Jim, who also serves as the Tar Creekkeeper with the Waterkeeper Alliance, said she recently saw a man fishing in Tar Creek and couldn’t help but be concerned for human health.

“Lead collects in the bones, so if you’re cooking fish, you’ve filleted it and there are no bones in it, but if you’re cooking the fish and (it) has its bones, as it heats up, some of that’s going to emanate out of the bone into the meat,” she said.

Jim said now that they have had the discussion, they’re going to submit comments to the EPA and encourage more people to write their own.

Submit a comment

To send a comment regarding Tar Creek Superfund Site Operable Unit 5 Remedial Investigation, contact Janetta Coats, EPA community involvement coordinator, at 214-665-7308 or email her at

News reporter

Kimberly Barker is a news reporter for The Globe who covers Northeast Oklahoma, Southeast Kansas, as well as Carl Junction and Webb City.