With input from Jim and Earl Hatley, the state posted an advisory that warns locals about the dangers of eating too much fish caught in Tar Creek, the Neosho River, Spring River and Grand Lake, said Jay Wright, who worked on the project with the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Wright said Jim helped the agency realize that some American Indians in the area pressure cook fish, eating the bones and skin, which are potentially the most toxic parts of fish that they live around heavy metals. A previous study hadn't taken local eating habits into account, he said.
"They've done a lot to raise public awareness on a lot of fronts, and frankly to encourage public agencies to take a look at the situation a little closer — and maybe look at it in ways that we hadn't thought about looking at it before,” Wright said of Jim and Hatley.
Jim still is advocating for continued environmental cleanup, and will host a 10th Tar Creek conference September 15 to 17.
"Once people are out of the epicenter (of Tar Creek), it doesn't mean the problem is gone,” she said. "The problem is still huge. It's just huge beyond belief.”
She's hopeful that fish will be able to live in Tar Creek again soon, with continued federal attention. Then, her fishing tournaments can be real — instead of held in protest.
Jim Inhofe: the senator
Cave-ins have long been reported in the unstable mining area at Tar Creek.
In the 1960s, houses actually sunk into the mine working. Picher's Main Street was shut down in the '50s because the fear of cave-ins was so great. And, prior to 1986, there were 59 collapses that sank craters more than 95 feet across, according to a government report.
Despite all these warning signs, the cave-in risks were never studied on a large scale until 2006, when a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report was released.
The results surpassed anything Inhofe expected. Two-hundred eighty-six homes, businesses and churches were found to be at risk for collapse.
Inhofe said in an interview that he decided to put increased attention on Tar Creek in 2003, when he became chair of the senate's Environment and Public Works Committee.
In 2004, he used that sway to pass a bill through congress that authorized $45 million for cleanup on the fringes of the Tar Creek site.
Some residents criticized that plan.
"I can find no indication, through his actions or his words, that the problems of these children matter,” Mark Osborn, a physician from Miami, told the Associated Press in 2003.
Inhofe was adamantly opposed to a public buyout, and in a December 2003 interview with the Tulsa World, he said: "There will never be a buyout. I promise you that.”
The powerful senator changed his tune recently, and he attributes the change to the $2 million 2006 report — which he commissioned and funded. It quantified and specified the risks for cave-ins.
While others called for a buyout on the merits of health and environmental risks in the area, Inhofe never supported one until safety and cave-ins became the issue.
The senator helped redirect cleanup money to pay residents to start leaving the area. Locals praise him for those efforts, saying Inhofe stepped in to aid them when other politicians wouldn't or couldn't.
When asked if he single-handedly is responsible for the current buyout program and environmental cleanup at Tar Creek, as he claims in his campaign ad, Inhofe said:
"Would we be where we are today, with almost to solution of a problem that's been there for 30 years, without my being involved?” he said. "That's the question you need to ask.”
Ed Keheley: the scientist
Keheley is a Picher native who returned to town after a career as a top nuclear weapons engineer at a U.S. Department of Energy lab. Tired of the stress that led him to pop antacids on his morning and afternoon commutes in California, Keheley moved back home in 1997 for a simpler life.
He was shocked to find his hometown was part of the EPA's hazardous waste program.
He had to get involved, he said. So Keheley set out to conduct his own investigation.
He sifted through news articles about the earth swallowing up homes. He dug through mining maps, which showed 100-foot caves underground, some only 100 feet from the surface. And he found out that support pillars that held those cave ceilings in place often were blasted out before the mines closed, so the mining companies could extract remaining ore.
At first, Keheley said, Inhofe and other officials "turned a deaf ear” to local efforts to draw attention to the unstable area.
America's class system
"There is a class system alive and well in the United States, and if you are a small rural community that doesn't have a voting bloc, you do not have the same access to federal resources and federal officials,” he said, adding: "When we were trying to focus attention on Tar Creek, he (Inhofe) was pretty much ignoring us.”
Keheley said Inhofe's aides ignored — and sometimes rudely dismissed — concerns about the environmental health of Tar Creek.
The senator's office wouldn't discuss the safety of the area or the possibility of getting residents of harm's way, Keheley said.
In April 2004, Keheley said he got to have a discussion with the senator.
They sat at opposing ends of a conference table, Keheley said.
A turning point
Keheley said he persuaded Inhofe to go on a private tour of Tar Creek with him. The experience helped convince Inhofe there was a serious risk for cave-ins, he said.
After the meeting, Keheley told the media: "We expected to be read the Riot Act, but he really surprised us.”
"Never in my wildest dreams would I have said he's the guy that's going to step forward and solve this,” Keheley said of Inhofe, "but that's one of the oddities of life. I'm certainly thankful for what he's done.”
Keheley said he thinks the buyout would not have happened without Inhofe's support.
He called the senator's campaign commercial a "flamboyant” attempt to take full credit for positive strides at Tar Creek, and said other politicians with access to the same resources as Inhofe would have made similar decisions.