U.S. Water News Online
PICHER, Okla. -- Federal officials have taken a look at the
40-square-mile mining mess known as Tar Creek, and came away with a
suitably bad impression.
``It kind of sickens me to see this kind of damage done to the
environment,'' said Joann Griffith, a representative of the
Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund office in Washington.
Griffith joined with other federal officials in a tour of one of
the nation's most polluted sites.
After two decades and almost $100 million spent on cleanup, Tar
Creek remains covered with mountains of mining waste, a white
gravel-like substance containing lead and zinc.
Water dyed orange from metals and acids in the mines meanders
through area creeks. Sinkholes emerge from collapsing caverns. Health
agencies have discovered high levels of lead in the blood of area
Griffith and other federal officials took their first look at the
site for a report on the feasibility of Gov. Frank Keating's plan to
turn the area into a huge wetlands. Piecemeal solutions to clean up
the contamination have largely failed.
A report from the agencies will be incorporated in a U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers study on possibilities for the project, its cost
and the responsibility of agencies involved. Preliminary estimates
placed the cost at $250 million.
The Army Corps of Engineers study is to be completed by fall. The
agency could decide to proceed with the project, but Congress would
have to appropriate funding.
If approved, initial work could be more than three years away,
said John Roberts, deputy district engineer for the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers in Tulsa.
A Keating task force started the process. President Bush agreed to
appoint federal representatives to look into the matter.
``We all acknowledge that this problem is so big that it would
take a collaborative effort,'' Oklahoma Environmental Secretary Brian
Griffin told officials and residents gathered at the local housing
The small towns of Picher and Cardin are in the center of the
Superfund site and could be moved. Resident Danny Frazier said
afterward he would welcome a relocation.
``I don't see how anybody in their right mind would want to
stay,'' he said.
The wetlands would cover only 17 square miles. Some residents said
that project area should be expanded.
``There are massive problems in this area and it's not just Picher
and Cardin,'' Picher Mayor Sam Freeman said.
The impact on runoff from the wetland should also be studied, they
said. Runoff from area tributaries flows into rivers that converge
into Grand Lake, a major water and recreational source in the region.
Other urged the federal government to take charge.
``If the federal government doesn't take an active part, it won't
be completed,'' said Chief Charles Enyart of the Eastern Shawnee
Tribe of Oklahoma.
A caravan of government officials, media and local residents got a
close up view of the enormous problem during an extensive tour.
Chat piles, which encircle Picher, include 74 million tons of
debris taken from the mines over 80 years. The metals were used to
arm the United States during World War II, but the mining companies
eventually went bankrupt when demand fell. The operations were
abandoned 30 years ago.
Residents say dust from the chat hills contributes to high levels
of lead in the blood of some area children.
One chat pile near some Picher homes is more than 100 feet high.
On a clear day, climbers can see water towers in Joplin, Mo., 30
miles away, said John Sparkman with the Picher Housing Authority, who
climbed the pile with members of the tour.
Hundreds of miles of mining caverns, now filled with groundwater,
underlie the entire region. Some of the caverns are so large, the
U.S. Capitol building in Washington would fit inside them, Griffin
Support columns built underground to hold up the caverns were
scavenged for the metal over the years. Sinkholes have developed and
swallowed up homes. About 400 open shafts dot the region.
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