LEAD Agency has been the environmental justice organization for NE Oklahoma since 1997. We listen and when we are allowed share your stories with people who have power and influence to make our lives safer and better. That's what we were doing while June Taylor and Tim Jones worked with the Ottawa County Boys and Girls Club on their last day of summer in our Community Garden. Lois Lively was quietly making cookies because nothing makes a place smell friendlier and cozier than freshly baked cookies. And since I was probably most nervous the scent made getting through the experience easier.
It is a responsibility to carry the messages of community members, to get them right, to hope to convey the seriousness protecting your health and your children's health is to us. As the author and therapist Clarissa Pinkola Estes would say, "Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach." Right there in the front room we discussed a complaint I made on the DEQ Hotline, a complaint about something I was relieved to learn the whole entourage had seen for themselves on their site visit the day before.
As a Waterkeeper, my role is to protect water and especially waters most at risk from polluters and that is exactly what it appeared we were seeing as Virgil Tarter drove his mother's car down a narrow dirt road in the all but abandoned area known as Hockerville. After we had driven around the Tar Creek Superfund Site and mile after mile we had viewed restored land, reclaimed from the mine waste that had laid upon it for nearly a hundred years, now green with growing crops from the work of the QUAPAWS, DEQ and EPA.
I was prepared to see even more as we crept up a narrow tree covered dirt road nearing what had been the always disappointing scene of a huge sinkhole where thousands of used tires had been dumped over the decades. I had prepared myself for the relief of NOT finding it, just knowing it would have been filled, and of course all the tires removed before the filling. But I was aghast to find it was still there, the tires not visible as the whole site was covered with car bodies. It was as if all those old tires had called their cars to join them in the void, "Come on in the Water's fine!" Not all the cars and trucks and the lone boat could get in, as there was a brand new shiny chain link fence keeping them from entering as the crane, not a water bird, as the crane-able-to-lift-a-car-type crane stood like the prison warden inside.
But what I saw were vehicles with oil, gas, antifreeze all sitting on the edge able to be spilling those fluids into the sinkhole and as such straight into the Boone Aquifer, still a drinking water source for people not far from there. A young man was working on a vehicle as we passed, demonstrating it was not an abandoned site.
Just think: A single drop of used motor oil can contaminate a million drops of water, or a single gallon of oil can contaminate a million gallons of ground water, it was clear right then that operation must stop.
Had you seen it, you too would have known, THIS IS NOT RIGHT. And that is when we have to remember the thing we say to kids, "See something? Say Something" and in this case the who to tell is the DEQ Hotline 800-522-0206. Ottawa County does not have a ECLS an Emergency Complaints Local Service person anymore. When Clyde Mason and Sharon Robbins retired, DEQ closed their office, so the person to investigate the complaint has to come from Delaware County. I hope he took help with him to investigate this complaint. Sinkholes have been known as great places to look for missing persons.
All to say, the conversation continued as they listened, and their staff discussed why they have made decisions we have not understood when changes to the cleanup standard is proposed.
The topics to be covered that day were on a cheat-sheet only Martin Lively and I had, and we went through them. But we were all caught off guard when LEAD's Board President, Louis "Red" Mathia interjected his hope that the barrels buried offsite and the sludge be investigated. Barrels that were brought here from Sayre, Oklahoma. It got quiet as he spoke.
Reflecting at that moment of the list we have and how it can grow with the knowledge our community members have, we truly are an environmental justice community and as such need the ear of the people in power who come to visit.
UPDATE: I received a call from the DEQ ECLS who investigated the complaint. They already had an open case on it. These things take time, I was told.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim