The Results of Mining at Tar Creek

Environmental Case Study by NRE 492 Group 5




Mining has destroyed the land and water and poisoned the Quapaw people who live in the Tar Creek area.  Large piles of leftover mine tailings, called chat piles, are in close proximity to local residences and school yards. These chat piles are contaminated with heavy metals that pose a threat to children who play on them.  When the wind blows, the contaminated dust from the mine tailings fills the homes of the residents.  Those living around Tar Creek are exposed to large amounts of lead, zinc, and cadmium from the watershed and the soil in residential areas. The Tar Creek area has been on the National Priorities List (NPL) for 20 years and has a rating of 58.15 (2003); the minimum score required to be put on the List is only 28.5 (1).  In 1996, 30% of the children under the age of six living in the site had blood levels of lead above 10 micrograms per deciliter (although 15 micrograms per deciliter is the ‘lead poisoning‘ threshold, there have been severe problems associated with levels much less than this).  Chronic exposure to lead can affect the immune system, nervous system, blood system, and kidneys. It may also result in premature births, smaller babies, learning difficulties, decreased mental ability, and reduced growth in small children (3).

Tar Creek is highly toxic and, for all intents and purposes, dead.  The fish have disappeared from the creek, which has had a significant impact on the lifestyle of the Native Americans in the area.  The banks of the creek are a sickening orange color and the groundwater has also been affected by acid water from the abandoned mines.

The health and well being of the people in the Tar Creek area have been put in serious jeopardy as the long overdue cleanup proceeds at snail’s pace.




            In the 1870s the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) illegitimately sold land belonging to the Quapaw tribe to mining companies (9). The tribe was not willing to sell the land. However, the transactions proceeded as the BIA declared opposing tribal members “incompetent” and sold the land to the mining companies.  Lead and zinc mining persisted from 1891 to 1970. The BIA also required the mining companies to leave the hazardous chat on site because it would "be of economic value to the tribe”.  However, it was later ruled that the tribe would not be permitted to sell the chat because of environmental regulations on transport of hazardous waste!  Mining was performed by the underground room-and-pillar method, whereby ‘rooms‘ were carved out as the ore was removed and ‘pillars‘ were left to keep the ground from caving in . Once mining was abandoned, water slowly filled these large rooms, dissolving high concentrations of sulfide minerals and creating millions of gallons of acid underground. Then, finally, in 1979, the acid drainage from the mines began flooding out into Tar Creek from numerous open mine shafts, natural springs, and boreholes. The surface water and some of the groundwater was instantly polluted. The stream that bore the brunt of this  pollution was named “Tar Creek.”

               In 1980, the Governor of the State of Oklahoma established the Tar Creek Task Force to investigate the acid mine drainage into Tar Creek. In 1983, the site was listed on the National Priorities List, making it one of the first Superfund Sites. The Tar Creek Superfund site consists of five mining towns - Picher, Cardin, Quapaw, Commerce, and North Miami, along with other areas of Ottawa County.




            In June of 1984, the EPA signed a Record of Decision for Operable Unit 1, allowing the monitoring of surface water, acid mine water discharges, and mine water levels to assess the effectiveness of the diking and diversion, which began in 1987.  From August of 1994 to July of 1995, the EPA sampled soils in High Access Areas (e.g., day care centers, school yards, and playgrounds) and residential properties and found them to be highly contaminated with lead. In August of 1997, a Record of Decision was finally issued to address the problem in residential areas.  From 1996 to 1998 1,542 lead-contaminated residential yards were cleaned up (1).  However, approximately 75 million tons of chat remain on the surface of the ground, while acidic flotation ponds cover approximately 800 acres (1).

            Since 1991 the EPA has been issuing Consent Decrees to the PRPs, requesting for participation in the cleanup of Tar Creek.  All six Primarily Responsible Parties (PRPs),  have refused to offer assistance in the clean-up.  In 1995, As an alternative, these mining companies offered to perform a Community Health Action Monitoring Program (CHAMP).  The EPA accepted (1).  However, this does nothing to advance the clean-up of the pollution resulting from the mining and cannot be considered an acceptable contribution to cleanup efforts.

            The EPA has been accused of intentionally dragging their feet in the cleanup process because Tar Creek raises issues that would affect the handling of mining sites all across the country.  According to Timothy Kent, Quapaw Superfund Manager, the EPA has been in closed-door negotiations with the mining companies, none of which has produced any real results. He feels that the refusal of the EPA to force the mining companies into compliance may be an indication of the EPA‘s noncommittal to the cleanup, and although it is only a conjecture, some feel the closed-door policy is a cover for some underhanded business and/or political dealings.

            Since the BIA illegitimately sold the land around Tar Creek in the 1870s, it is a PRP, thus making the Department of Interior itself a PRP. This results in the awkward situation of one government entity, the EPA, having to make demands on another, the DOI.  Rebecca Jim, head of the community organization LEAD (Local Environmental Action Demanded), suggests that this conflict of interests at the federal level may be one reason the EPA is not asking the Department of Interior to provide funds for the cleanup, even though it profited from the sale of Quapaw land.


Key Actors:


Environmental Protection Agency- The EPA has removed contaminated soil from over 1700 residences and plugged 83 toxic wells.  However, they have been unsuccessful in getting mining companies and the Department of Interior to take responsibility for their role in polluting the site.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs- The BIA set up the sale of land to the mining companies against the wishes of the tribe.  By refusing to take responsibility for their action, they are halting progress on attaining funds for the clean-up.

Mining Companies- These companies have refused to contribute to the clean-up of the site.  Some of the companies have already declared bankruptcy, making it difficult to collect money from them. Asarco Inc., Blue Tee Corp., Goldfields Mining Corp., NL Industries, Childress Royalty Co. and Doe Run Resources Corp. are the defendants of the class-action suit filed by residents of the Picher-Cardin area and the city of Picher and the Picher School District.

Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) and Cherokee Volunteer Society (Learn and Serve Program)- These local activist groups have started many programs to educate the community on the effects of the mining pollution and have worked to notify the federal government of the dangers that the chat piles, tainted soil, and acid water pose to the people of Tar Creek.



80% of the site is on land given to the Quapaw tribe by the federal government when they were forced to move from their ancestral home in Arkansas.

60-70% of the toxics-laden waste is on land owned by tribal members. 20% of the population in the Tar Creek Superfund Site is Native American. Tribes that are represented in the region include the Cherokee, Miami, Peoria, Ottawa, Quapaw, and Eastern Shawnee.

20% of the population is documented as Native American. However, according to Rebecca Jim of the LEAD Agency, these numbers are misleading. Many of the residents are not 100% Native American by ethnicity, and they tend to deny their ancestry in order to blend in with the "whites who are proud of being white." According to Jim, a counselor at the local Miami High School for 25 years, approximately 50% of the student body has a Native American heritage. More and more Hispanics are also moving into the area as they find work on surrounding farms or in the towns of Picher-Cardin and Miami (4).

The 1999 median household income for Picher, Oklahoma is $19,722.  The median house value is $20,700, significantly below the average for the state. The percentage of people below poverty level in Picher-Cardin is 29.23%, and in Miami, 23.38%.






   In 1980, Governor George Nigh assembled a Tar Creek task force to study the acid mine drainage. The results were shown to the EPA and Tar Creek was subsequently declared a Superfund site in 1983.

            After nearly ten years of EPA inaction, community members banded together to work for the cleanup of their community.  In 1995, Rebecca Jim, a counsellor from Miami High School, formed the Cherokee Volunteer Society (CVS) to rally local citizens to the cause. A study coordinated by CVS found that 32 percent of the community children had elevated blood levels. Don Ackerman, a masters student at the time, sent the results to the Environmental Protection Agency and the EPA finally refocused its attention back onto Tar Creek, nearly ten years after it was put on the NPL.

            In 1997, Rebecca Jim helped form another group called the LEAD (Local Environmental Action Demanded) Agency.  With the purpose of educating residents in Northeast Oklahoma and conducting research on the local environmental health hazards, LEAD is now in partnership with a local hospital and Harvard University to study the effects of lead on local children. Through LEAD, a program was implemented at Oklahoma State University Medical School whereby students can opt for a one-month rotation at Tar Creek, giving them valuable hands-on experience in the field of toxicology.

            Another tactic was taken by  students at Miami High School when they realized that their elders were not convinced that anything could be done; they decided to take the initiative and educate the community.  Nancy Scott, the Cherokee Volunteer Society’s Learn and Serve Program Manager worked with the teachers at Miami HS to begin a Learn and Serve Program in the school.  Students conducted water monitoring and collected fish and plant samples from the heavily polluted creek for analysis. Over the course of a year, more than half of the student body became involved, tackling the entire gamut of issues, including public relations, community awareness, and public health communication.

            In 2002, Miami High School students organized a three-day conference with the governor of Oklahoma, the state’s secretary of the environment and the EPA regional administrator, along with other state and federal officials and public health and environmental researchers.  The effort put forth by the students at Miami High School has gathered attention from Oklahoma’s Congressional Delegation as well as the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.  The students have also organized “fishing trips” at the creek to emphasize the fact that Tar Creek has no fish. Additionally, they have led “Toxic Tours” to show national and state leaders the pollution in their home town firsthand.

            The most recent strategy of Tar Creek activists is what a Quapaw Tribe official called “the largest environmental lawsuit in Oklahoma history” against mining companies that operated in what is now the Tar Creek Superfund Site in Ottawa County.  The suit will ask for money to compensate tribal members, and to pay for health monitoring and additional cleanup work to be funded by the mining companies. The same remedy is being sought in a class action suit filed against the mining companies earlier this summer by residents of the Picher-Cardin area and the Picher School District. The defendants in that suit are Asarco Inc., Blue Tee Corp, NL Industries, Childress Royalty Co., and Doe Run Resources Corp.  the Environmental Protection Agency has been negotiating with mining companies that are classified as “primarily responsible parties” to help pay for the Tar Creek Superfund work.  Attorneys for they mining companies have said that the companies operated the lead and zinc mines by state-of-the-art standards of the day and that they were unaware of the potential long-range dangers to the environment (7).




While many of the chat piles remain looming over the community with no plan to have them removed, there has been some progress for Tar Creek.  Since 1983, the EPA has plugged 83 wells, reducing contaminants reaching the Roubideax aquifer (1), the main water supply for the community. Groups such as LEAD and CVS have been able to educate the public about the dangers of lead. From June 1996 to January 1998, the EPA managed the clean up of 1,542 lead-contaminated residential yards as part of an emergency removal.  Another 105 Native American properties were remediated from October of 2001 to May of 2002. In August of 2002, the remediation of 8 schools in Miami and Picher was completed, finally removing some of the dangerously toxic chat.  As a result of these efforts, studies show a 50% decrease in the number of children with lead-blood levels over 10 micrograms/deciliter (1).



Unfortunately, the EPA has not been effective in handling the Tar Creek situation.  Timothy Kent, the Quapaw Superfund Program Manager, has emphasized that because of this, stronger litigation against the PRPs is likely to be the most effective strategy, since they can provide the funds for cleanup.

In conjunction with the lawsuits, we recommend that the residents of Tar Creek vie for more media attention. Certainly, national publicity is warranted for one of the most polluted sites in the history of the U.S.

            While the CVS and LEAD have created a strong local movement that has drawn attention to the issue, forming relationships with larger and more popular national environmental groups, would allow Tar Creek activists to gain access to greater resources and reach a larger audience.  One such group is Riverkeeper, an advocacy group that monitors the Hudson River ecosystem and challenges polluters using both legal and grassroots campaigns (8). Doing so could considerably increase their political influence, legal resources , and media access.  Creating such alliances would also allow the group greater access to financial resources, as well as increase publicity due to the name recognition and notoriety associated with the larger and more visible organizations.

            Due in part to the lack of governmental and corporate responsibility, and also due  to bureaucratic red tape and constraints, the situation in Tar Creek has become quite complicated.  The EPA has not achieved much of what it had originally planned. At one point in the mid-1980s, the EPA actually pulled out of the remediation process and returned at a later date due to the vigorous efforts of the community. While this is a success to be celebrated by local activists, this long-overdue cleanup process is still in its early stages and it remains to be seen whether Tar Creek, one of the first Superfund sites in the nation, will ever be adequately cleaned up at all.


Key Contacts

Timothy Kent

Quapaw Superfund Program Manager



Rebecca Jim

Cherokee Volunteer Society

LEAD Agency





1.     EPA District 6 report on Tar Creek (Ottawa County), Aug 21, 2003


2.      U.S. EPA "Record of Decision: Residential Areas Operable Unit 2, Tar Creek Superfund Site, Ottawa County, Oklahoma." 1997.


3.      "Tar Creek Task Force Health Effect Subcommittee Report." 2000. HealthEffectsReport2.pdf


4.      Rebecca Jim, phone interview, October 2003


5.      Gary Garton, "Quapaw Tribe says it will sue mining companies." The Joplin Globe. 2003.


6.      Chavez, Will "Cherokee citizen advocates clean up of Tar Creek." Cherokee Phoenix. 2003


      7.  National Tribal Justice Resource Center. 2003



      8. Riverkeeper. 2002


      9. Timothy Kent, phone interview, October 22, 2003