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Echoes of Love Canal in Tar Creek Relocation 

Everyone's Backyard v.22, n.2, Summer 2004 1jul04


Who would imagine that the New York Yankees and he Tar Creek Superfund site in northeast Oklahoma would have something in common? They do. Mickey Mantle. The childhood home of Mickey

Aerial view of "chat" pile looming over town. Photo by Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD).

"Chat" pile looming over town. 
  Photo LEAD

Mantle, considered one of the most popular and feared sluggers to ever play baseball for the Yankees is located in Commerce, OK, which is part of the 40-square mile Superfund site that is heavily contaminated with lead, cadmium and other toxic metals.

Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma but moved to Commerce at the age of three. His father was a lead miner and Mickey worked in the mines as well during the summers. Some credit his unusual strength to working in the mines as a "screen ape." This involved smashing large rocks into small stones with a sledgehammer. Today Mantle's childhood home and the barn where he honed many of his baseball skills are being renovated as a tourist attraction.

At the same time, many people in Commerce and other towns that are part of the 40-square mile Superfund site are anxious to leave. Some families will have this option beginning September 1st when $5 million approved by the Oklahoma state legislature to purchase homes is made available to families with children six years old or younger who live in the towns of Picher and Cardin located at the center of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The option to relocate using these funds is voluntary.

"It's time," Regena Carder, who lives in Picher with her 3 year-old granddaughter and plans to apply for the relocation funds, told reporters. "I'm just glad they're doing something," she added. For residents who have been given the option to leave, there are mixed feelings says Rebecca Jim, Executive Director of the local community group, Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD). Jim told CHEJ that "Some will take it and go, some may take it but continue to let their children attend the local school, some will come back in the evenings and weekends to see their children's grandparents, friends, etc."

Children under the age of six were targeted because they are especially vulnerable to the effects of exposure to lead and because there's strong scientific evidence linking chronic lead exposure to adverse health problems in children including permanent neurological damage and learning disabilities. Not surprisingly, there's a high incidence of learning disabilities among students in the Picher-Cardin school district.

Tar Creek was once the location of extensive lead and zinc mining operations that has left more than 50 million tons of mine tailings in hundreds of piles and ponds over a 40-square mile area. Some of these piles are hundreds of feet tall (see photos) while others are as wide as several football fields. There are sinkholes and abandoned mineshafts everywhere. These mountains of lead and zinc waste completely surround the towns of Picher and Cardin located at the center of the site. The nearby towns of Commerce and Quapaw are also affected as are portions of the Quapaw tribal reservation. The Quapaw tribe owns most of the land which has been leased to people who have built homes on the site.

Dust contaminated with lead, cadmium and other toxic metals blow off these huge storage piles onto streets, homes and school yards throughout these communities. Not realizing that there was any danger, residents used this dust, known locally as "chat," to make driveways, foundations for their homes, or as fill for home improvement projects. Children innocently played on these piles often riding their bikes up and down them.

According to the USEPA, approximately 25 percent of the children living on the site have elevated blood lead levels, compared to a state average of 2 percent; approximately 1,600 residential homes have been identified with unsafe soil lead levels (having more than 500 ppm lead in soil); and five public water supply wells have been impacted. An estimated 28 billion gallons of acid mine water is draining from the mines, contaminating groundwater and spreading contamination across a vast watershed. Portions of the site are so severely scarred and disrupted by past mining activities that it looks like a lunar landscape. All this despite the fact that the EPA has already spent $107 million on cleanup.

The relocation bill makes no provision for residents with older children whose health is similarly endangered. This decision is eerily reminiscent of the progressive stages in which the Love Canal community in Niagara Falls, New York was evacuated 25 years ago. First, those living immediately adjacent to the now-infamous dumpsite were relocated, followed by families with pregnant women and children under the age of two who lived on historically wet areas and swales that crossed the landfill, then it was those who got sick during the cleanup, and finally, all 900 families in the neighborhood were able to leave. The contaminants at Tar Creek are different from those at Love Canal, but the effect is the same a whole community suffering from exposure to toxic chemicals.

After each evacuation at Love Canal, the state would tell the residents who remained that their risks were "low," no different than living anywhere else in Niagara Falls. But the residents persisted in their efforts to win relocation for everyone who wanted to leave and continued to ignore the state's constant reassurances "that everything was all right."

Similarly, the EPA has said that the health risk to the general public living on the Tar Creek site is "low." What does this mean to the children who are now 8, 10 or 12 who lived in Tar Creek when they were six and younger? What does it mean to adults who have lived there all their lives and who now suffer from neurological problems linked to lead exposure?

What does it mean to Quapaw tribal members who live on the site? Did the EPA's "risk assessment" take into account the cultural traditions of Native American people who are likely to gather herbs for medicinal use, consume more fish, and gather berries along Tar Creek?

Rebecca Jim told CHEJ that "we know that it's more than just the children and its more than just the families in the epicenter [of the site]." There are, says Jim, "... four other whole towns, the Quapaw tribal headquarters where tribal members have danced for 130 years, with two rivers that have fish advisories for metals that form Grand Lake which is a water source for another three counties of people." The Mayor of Picher agrees, "There are massive problems in this area and it's not just Picher and Cardin."

The LEAD group has done its own health study of the community using a grant from EPA. They found many health problems in adults including diabetes, kidney disease, Parkinson's disease, cancer and heart disease

How can the government turn its back on so many people who live on what the EPA describes as the "worst toxic waste site in the nation," an area described in the federal Tar Creek Restoration Act as a site that "...can never be made safe for human habitation?"

It took time at Love Canal and continued pressure from the community before the state and federal governments finally agreed to relocate the entire community. Rebecca Jim met with Lois Gibbs, CHEJ's Executive Director and the community leader at Love Canal, to learn from her experiences. They now know what they have to do ignore the government's hollow reassurances and keep the pressure on.

Says Jim, "We'll continue to demand relocation for those who want to go and for clean up for those who want to stay. We need to find ways to make the area habitable for those who want to stay." Hopefully, in time, the people who live on the Tar Creek Superfund site will succeed in getting the state and federal governments to agree to relocate those in the entire affected community who want to leave, not just those who are most vulnerable.

Everyone's Backyard is a publication of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice

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