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Behind the politics of that plan and many others, local advocacy has been present. A local nurse was the first to suggest mine waste near the town of Picher might be poisoning kids. A nuclear scientist returned to his hometown and pushed for a look at massive cave-ins caused by extensive subterranean mine workings. And a guidance counselor has been drawing attention to poisoned waters at the site for more than a decade. Meanwhile, in a campaign ad, Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe claims to be responsible for the environmental cleanup and buyout program. In the commercial, titled "One Man in America,” a narrator says: "Tar Creek: poisoned earth, the threat of schools and churches sinking into abandoned mines. Everyone thought it would be too much to tackle, except for one stubborn man named Inhofe.” Some residents say a buyout, which is unfinished, wouldn't have happened without Inhofe. But before any politicians got involved, common people have fought to put Tar Creek on the government's radar for more than three decades.
It took a town to find help for Tar Creek
PICHER — Over the years, many have championed the cause of this polluted lead and zinc mining town from behind the scenes.The former northeastern Oklahoma mining district, called Tar Creek, has been on the government's list of high-priority environmental cleanup sites since 1983. In recent years, residents have slowly left the area, as a government-funded program pays willing people for their property.
Tar Creek timeline1904: Underground lead and zinc mining starts in Picher, in the northeast corner of Oklahoma. 1920s: The mining peaks. 1950s: The mines decline, and Picher closes its Main Street because of a cave-in. 1960s: Homes sink into abandoned mine workings. 1970: Mining stops. 1978: The U.S. Geological Survey warns of future problems associated with nearly 10.75 billion gallons of acid water that in the underground mines. 1983: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declares Tar Creek a high-priority waste site in the Superfund program. 1994: A local nurse-doctor team first suspected a connection between lead mine waste and learning deficiencies at Picher-Cardin Schools. 1995: People living near Tar Creek begin holding annual fake fishing competitions to tell the government they believe fish and waters in the area are unhealthy. 1996: Government tests show 31.2 percent of kids in the area have blood lead levels higher than 10 micrograms per deciliter, the government limit. 1998: A local environmental advocacy group begins holding public conferences about Tar Creek. 2003: U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe spars with U.S. Rep. Brad Carson over a buyout at Tar Creek. Carson favors a buyout. In December, Inhofe tells the Tulsa World: "There will never be a buyout. I promise you that.” 2004: Inhofe, R-Tulsa, funds an "omnibus bill” that includes $45 million for cleanup on the periphery of the Tar Creek site. 2004: Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, calls for the government to pay willing families with kids ages 6 and younger to relocate from the Superfund site. 2004: Inhofe meets with residents. Some locals say Inhofe ignored their concerns before that April 2004 meeting. 2005: Inhofe uses sway as chair of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to fund a $2 million study of cave-in risks. 2006: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases a report saying 286 properties at the Tar Creek site are at risk for cave-ins. The $2 million report was commissioned by Inhofe. 2006: The corps report leads Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, to call for a government-sponsored buyout. 2007: The state Department of Environmental Quality releases a warning that fish between Tar Creek and Grand Lake may be contaminated with toxic heavy metals. 2008: On May 10, an EF-4 tornado levels half of Picher, killing six. The buyout remains half finished. EPA officials estimate the cleanup process will take 30 more years. Sources: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, The Oklahoman, The Associated Press, Tulsa World, the office of U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, Rebecca Jim, Ed Keheley.
George Mayer: The rancherThe prairie was oozing orange, and George Mayer is said to be the first to have taken notice. On his ranch in Commerce, just down the road from the former Tri-State Mining District, rust-colored water started seeping out of the ground in 1979 or 1980. It stained the legs and backs of Mayer's white Arabian horses that roamed the field. It burned the hair off their legs, left open sores, and sizzled right through a metal bucket, according to a newspaper report. As hard as her husband tried, he couldn't get the stains off, said Maxine Mayer, George's widow. George Mayer's son, Jody Mayer, said it looked like the horses were wearing red socks. According to a 1983 story by the Times-Post News Service, the U.S. Geological survey published a report in 1978 that predicted the coming problems associated with 10.75 billion gallons of acid mine water that had filled the mines. After the mines closed in 1970, pumps that kept the cavernous mines from flooding with groundwater were turned off. Soon the caves filled with water, that water picked up heavy metals, turned acidic and crept up to the surface, where it oxidized. George embarked on a research and public relations campaign to warn people about the pollution he'd found, said Jody Mayer, 62. His father, who died in 1998, called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Jody Mayer said, and soon government officials and news reporters were swarming the area. "It threw up the red flag,” Jody Mayer said. By 1981, the state government developed a plan to address water pollution at Tar Creek, and in 1983 the federal government listed Tar Creek as one of the must urgent hazardous waste sites in its Superfund program.
Dr. Shirley Chesnut: The physicianThe child patients were funneling in at an alarming rate, all with the same symptoms: trouble paying attention, trouble reading and trouble learning. It perplexed Dr. Shirley Chesnut, who was working at the Miami Indian Health Clinic in the early 1990s. All the kids were coming from nearby Picher, and she thought teachers might be over-diagnosing attention deficit disorder. Then a nurse made a connection: "Well, it could be lead,” Carol Barnett told Dr. Chesnut. About 10 years after Tar Creek was declared a Superfund site, no one had tested local kids to see if the toxic metals had ended up in their blood, damaging their central nervous systems. After Barnett raised the issue, Chesnut said she started an informal program to blood test kids for lead. The results were alarming. "I'll never forget it, because probably every child we checked came back with a high lead level,” she said. Chesnut tested her own children, and three of the four had high lead levels, she said. Chesnut didn't have time to do an overall study of the situation, said Rebecca Jim, who interviewed health workers about the situation for a book. A graduate student stepped in to analyze the results, she said. In 1994, the clinic reported that 35 percent of the American Indian kids tested had high blood lead levels. The government began testing for lead in the blood of residents and in the soil. The results came in 1996 and offered similar results — 31.2 percent of kids in the area had blood lead levels higher than 10 micrograms per deciliter, the government's safety limit. Years later, in 2004, the information about these public health risks, pushed Gov. Brad Henry to propose a plan to pay all families with children 6 years old and younger to leave the Superfund site. Henry's spokesman, Paul Sund, said that plan would never have happened without blood testing; and, he said, the Inhofe buyout wouldn't be happening if the 2004 effort hadn't served as a template.
Rebecca Jim: The counselorFor 14 years, Rebecca Jim has held fake fishing tournaments near, but not in, Tar Creek. No one ever catches anything, and that's the point: the water is too toxic for aquatic life to survive. "There aren't any fish yet, so we're still just practicing,” said Jim, who is a former guidance counselor from Miami, OK. Jim founded the Local Environmental Action Demanded (L.E.A.D.) Agency in part to draw attention to how large of an area is being damaged by the mine waste and how many people are being hurt. In addition to the fishing tournaments, she also hosts a conference to raise local awareness about Tar Creek.
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