When Tar Creek was placed on the EPA administrator’s list of “Superfund Sites Targeted for Immediate, Intense Action,” we were dubious.
More posturing for the site in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, we thought, skeptical that it would result in more aggressive remediation.
After all, it has been more than 40 years since the governor of Oklahoma established the Tar Creek Task Force — 1980 — and more than 35 years since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency placed the heavily mined region on its National Priorities List in 1983. And there have been many questions and legal challenges about how cleanup money has been spent over the years.
Yes, much has been done, including the buyout of four communities within the Superfund area, the removal of more than 4 million tons of mining waste and contaminated soil, and groundwater and surface water cleanup. But much work remains, and given that the emphasis list was compiled by Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general and EPA hater who became the controversial EPA administrator, we weren’t optimistic. After Pruitt’s disastrous tenure and ignominious resignation, we wrote off the emphasis list as an empty gesture.
As Rebecca Jim, director of the LEAD Agency, a nonprofit environmental organization in Miami, noted when the list was composed, promises without money are meaningless.
“If they don’t issue more money, then they can’t work any faster,” Jim said.
Well, this week we learned with the release of the EPA’s draft plan for the continuing cleanup of Tar Creek that the agency plans 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 that took the profits but left behind the mountains of chat and a region so heavily undermined as to become uninhabitable. About $62 million has been received from responsible parties so far, and about $20 million of that remains.
How far will $95 million go?
More than 40 million tons of chat were left behind after the mining ended, and chat piles and mine waste covered thousands of acres. Also left behind were more than 1,000 mine shafts and over 100,000 exploratory boreholes, resulting in extensive water contamination. Mining runoff from the lead and zinc mines has polluted Tar Creek over the years, which ran orange with pollution. More than 40 square miles were included in the Superfund site.
In all, more than $300 million has been spent on the Superfund site so far, according to EPA.
We have a long way to go yet, but we’re grateful Tar Creek is getting more attention — and money.