In 1997, Ottawa County, Oklahoma, was declared an environmental justice site by EPA. The Tri-State Mining District (where the corners of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma converge) is a 500-square mile area of abandoned lead and zinc mines with five Superfund hazardous waste sites. The landscape is pockmarked with open mine shafts, sink holes where the surface caved into mines below and mountains of tailings piles reaching as high as 200 feet. These “chat” piles, along with now-dry ponds created in the mineral washing process, contain high levels of lead, cadmium, zinc, manganese and iron. Winds whip up surface deposits and carry the metals, as well as silica dust, throughout the area. Rain washes metals into nearby streams and into the Grand watershed.
In 1983, the area was placed on the Superfund National Priorities List and given the highest ranking in EPA’s Hazardous Ranking System. The Tar Creek site became one of the first Superfund sites in the country. After 27 years, one can tour the area and not see any difference between how it looked in 1983 and how it impacts the environment, and how it is today.
Ottawa County is the northeasternmost county in Oklahoma, bordering Missouri on the east and Kansas on the north. There are nine small Tribes located in Ottawa County on the east side of the Neosho River, which cuts into it from Kansas and separates most of the county geographically. The Neosho meets Spring River to start the Grand River and, since the completion of the Pensacola Dam in 1940, Grand Lake. The Cherokee Nation’s reservation boundary borders this area. This region has one of the lowest median income levels in the state. Even though Ottawa County was declared an EPA Environmental Justice site in 1997, the insults continue. Surely, no other county in Oklahoma or the region is impacted by pollutants to the extent of Ottawa County.
The citizen advocacy group Local Environmental Action Demanded Agency, or LEAD, was formed in 1997 to address the Tar Creek Superfund Site. In 2001, LEAD expanded its scope to address the downstream impacts of the Tri-State Mining District. The organization’s membership is open to any individual. However, 80 percent of the organization is American Indian, representing all the tribes located in the area. In 2003, LEAD created the Grand Riverkeeper to assess the cultural and subsistence impacts of the upper Grand River watershed, especially on Tribes. I was the LEAD Board President at the time and stepped down to become the Grand Riverkeeper. Today I primarily work on watershed protection while LEAD focuses on environmental health impacts of heavy metals from the Tar Creek Site. This effort is spearheaded by our Executive Director Rebecca Jim (Cherokee). In addition to metals pollution, we work to protect our land and our Grand River from bacteria and nutrient pollution from the poultry industry, and mercury pollution from six coal-fired power plants owned by Grand River Dam Authority.
I have been a full-time community organizer since getting involved in the national Anti-Toxics Movement in the 1980s. Being Riverkeeper under these conditions requires an organizing approach that is almost as imposing as the range of environmental injustices facing the Grand River watershed. As Riverkeeper I focus on working with Tribes and other grassroots organizations to protect water quality and wildlife ecology in the watershed. Meanwhile, LEAD’s focus is primarily on environmental health issues due to heavy metals exposure to the area related to the Tar Creek Superfund Site.
In 2005, LEAD conducted a survey of 562 homes in six towns to determine the health issues affecting the communities near the Tar Creek Superfund Site area. The result was a top ten list of prevailing illnesses that looked very different from the state’s health reports. We continue to press forward to expose the severe health effects from metals pollution.
I am currently helping to build a coalition of the ten Tribes, two EPA Regions, the environmental agencies of three states and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the two regions that operate in the upper Grand River watershed to address this heavy metal pollution. EPA has released its proposed remedy for the Tar Creek Superfund Site, a 20 year plan to remove chat piles and settlement ponds. Over the next five to 10 years, heavy metals will no longer travel to and settle into Grand Lake.
We also are working statewide with coalitions to force the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality to adopt stricter regulations for mercury contamination from coal-fired power plants. The federal Clean Air Mercury Rule would “force” the coal-fired plants to reduce mercury emissions 70 percent, but won’t take effect for 20 years — until 2027. But our streams are already polluted and the fish unsafe to eat. For Tribal and low-income people who hunt and gather for additional protein, the recommended fish consumption amounts to genocide, or more properly, ecocide. The state is now considering, after much public pressure, a stricter rule than federal EPA’s weak proposal. Working as part of a broad grassroots effort Grand Riverkeeper has helped stop two new permit proposals for large coal-fired power plants in the watershed. However, the Grand River Dam Authority, a state agency that manages the hydro dams on the Grand River system, is also proposing a new coal-fired plant in the watershed. Since the Dam Authority does not have to have public comment hearings or a permit, this plant will be hard to fight.
Industrial poultry factories are another issue of great concern. Streams that were once so clear you could see the different colors of all the rocks on the bottom are now so green that you cannot see the bottom. Missouri’s poultry industry and inadequately treated wastewater discharges from municipalities in Kansas are turning the Neosho River and Grand Lake into a toilet bowl.
One of my heroes, Woody Guthrie, told the story about arriving in one of the Okie dust bowl refugee camps in California. A family took him in and offered him some soup they were having for supper. They only had one potato left and a lot of people to feed, so they cooked it up in a pot, large enough so that everyone got a bowl of the soup. Woody said, “Why, that soup was so thin, I believe I could read a newspaper through it. Even a senator could see through it.” Well someday, our watershed might be so green, even a senator can notice it.
Reprinted from Waterkeeper Magazine, Winter 2008, http://switchstudio.com/waterkeeper/issues