MIAMI, Okla. — Nearly four months after an accidental spill into Tar Creek, J-M Farms and the Oklahoma secretary of agriculture updated the public on their cleanup efforts and spill prevention methods during day one of the 20th National Environmental Conference at Tar Creek in Miami.

The two-day conference held at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College allows the Ottawa County community to receive the latest updates on the environmental challenges and health effects faced at the Tar Creek Superfund site.

Scott Engelbrecht, J-M Farms growing operations manager, and Jim Reese, state secretary of agriculture, reported Tuesday that the accidental spill on June 22 is still under investigation by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

Reese said they only have limited information because the case is not closed but that they do have the timeline of events. The spill occurred after a faulty transfer pipe coupling on the farm’s water collection system leaked into Tar Creek. The department was notified of the spill quickly by the Oklahoma Kill Response Management Team App.

Engelbrecht said that an estimated quarter of a million gallons of contaminated water flowed into the creek through an unnamed tributary. The rain run-off from the compost yard killed the fish because of the water's low oxygen levels.

“It’s essentially compost tea,” Engelbrecht said. “It did not contain any type of pesticides or chemicals. It’s purely a heavy nutrient load that was leaked into Tar Creek.”

To prevent further contamination, Engelbrecht said, the farm immediately began constructing a series of berms along the tributary of Tar Creek. Then several 6-inch pumps were placed to help transfer the contaminated water back to the farm. Reese reported that they recovered 1.3 million gallons of water as a result of the cleanup and conducted five water sampling events to monitor the progress.

The local mushroom farm is taking measures to prevent future spills. Engelbrecht said the original piping has been replaced with a continuous pipe and the pump capacity has been increased to allow for higher volume of retention water to be used in the composting process. Steps also include testing of new aeration systems to improve water quality and more frequent monitoring of lagoons and Tar Creek.

“What we want to do is ensure that we’re not putting Tar Creek in any additional harm than what it’s already been through,” Engelbrecht said.

Adult lead impact

Another major topic of discussion during the conference was the impact of lead on adults. Rebecca Jim, executive director of Local Environmental Action Demanded, said this was the first time the subject was explored at the environmental summit.

Emily Moody, a pediatric environmental health researcher, pediatrician and internist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, led the discussion. She said she’s always been interested in recognizing the differences of toxic metals and how it affects people.

“Any exposure that we do have (to lead) comes from our own history,” Moody said. “We mined lead and have used it in many products over a millennia, and that’s how it gets into our environments and our bodies.”

Moody said occupational exposure and the beginning of the first understanding of lead toxicity in humans in the U.S. came from tetraethyl lead, which was produced as an anti-knocking agent for gasoline. Manufacturing plant workers inhaled the chemical during its production because no protective measures were in place at the time.

Today, adults continue to be exposed to lead through occupations such as construction, auto repair and battery manufacturing. Lead exposure for adult workers is officially regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but Moody said many small industries don’t follow its guidelines.

Lead affects adults and children differently. The toxic metal affects children's overall growth and development. Exposures to lead in children can cause decreased bone and muscle growth, lower IQ, nervous system damage, kidney damage and learning disabilities. In adults, lead is stored in the bones and can affect the kidneys, the cardiovascular system, the reproductive system, the nervous system and the digestive system.

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.