Rebecca Jim, Cherokee environmentalist speaks at Vanderbilt

- Nashville, Tennessee (NFIC) -

Earlier this year prominent Cherokee environmental activist, Rebecca Jim,  spoke at a forum held at Vanderbilt University sponsored by the university Indigenous student organization, Native Americans in Tennessee Interacting at Vanderbilt.

The subject of her presentation was an environmental crisis ; the detrimental effects of mining at the Tar Creek Superfund Site in northeastern Oklahoma.

Jim is an environmental  advocate and activist who has worked for the last two decades with tribal leaders and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)   to enhance the quality of living for residents living in the Tar Creek Superfund Site area.  The Tar Creek site is on the land historically belonging to the  Quapaw Indian Tribe. The site is currently in a state of being cleaned up.

She first became an activist and advocate for environmental issues while working as an Indian counselor in the public schools of Miami, Oklahoma.

“Kids in Miami were different. Many of them had more difficulty settling down, paying attention and staying on task. A lot of kids would drop out and give up” said Jim. After a year in her new job, Tar  Creek, a local brook, turned bright orange and all the fish died Suddenly. A year after that happened, the  EPA arrived to investigate. In 1993, the University of Oklahoma conducted a study and found that 34 percent of the children in the Quapaw Tribe had lead blood levels above the federal safety limit, while the national average for elevated lead blood levels was just 3 percent.  

“We have a lot of people with kidney disease. We have a lot of people with cardiovascular disease. We have children that are being exposed before they are even born. I have former students that are dead already” stated Jim. She continued “Its robbery. It was all preventable. This shouldn’t have happened. And now their children will die as well if we don’t finish the cleanup.”  

The term “Superfund” is a Federal government program mandated to pay for the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous pollutants.  

This program was established under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA). It empowers federal natural resource agencies, primarily the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states and Native American Indian nations to recover natural resources damages caused by hazardous substances. The EPA can identify parties (polluters) responsible for the release of hazardous substances into the environment  and either compel them to clean up or it may perform the cleanup on its own using the Superfund.

In the case of Tar Creek, mining has devastated the land and the water and poisoned the Quapaw  people who live in the area. 80% percent of the site is on land reserved to the Quapaw people by the U.S. government when they were forced to remove from their ancestral homeland in Arkansas. 60-70 percent of the toxic waste is on land still owned by tribal members. Other tribal people in the area include Cherokee, Miami, Ottawa, Peoria and Eastern Shawnee.

The area ranks as one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in the entire United States. It is on par with the Love Canal catastrophe that is so infamously well known. But, Tar Creek has never had  any where near the media coverage of Love Canal. The difference was that Love Canal involved non-Indians, mostly whites.

Decades of mining lead, zinc and other heavy metals have so massively contaminated the ground, air and many streams of northeastern Oklahoma and parts of Kansas and Missouri that many creeks  and other waterways  flow a bright orange.

Numerous residents have lead poisoning at a rate three times higher than is found among those living in Flint, Michigan. The Tar Creek Superfund site, after 34 years and over $300 million spent on cleanup, is still decades away from restoration according to local activists.         

The genesis of this environmental disaster goes back to 1834, when the federal government removed the Quapaw Tribe from Arkansas to a small plot of land in present-day Oklahoma.   

At that time the     land was considered worthless by U.S. standards, but later minerals, heavy metals such as lead and zinc,  considered valuable by  mainstream economics were discovered. In the 1870’s the  Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at the behest of mining companies requested that the Tribe sell the mining rights. The Quapaws refused and the BIA had tribal members declared incompetent and illegally leased the land to the mining companies.  

White “guardians” were appointed by the courts to manage the royalties that accrued from the mining. Only one-sixth of Quapaw landowners ever received any of the money. The tribe is presently involved in a lawsuit with the BIA over the mismanaged funds.  Lead and zinc  mining  continued to 1970.

The mining companies received huge profits from the illegally leased land and produced half of the lead and zinc for ammunition in both World Wars. The local mining industry began to slow down in the late 1960’s, but generations of residents were left to live with the  deadly pollutants that were left behind.

Ottawa County in northeast Oklahoma is speckled with man-made mountains built from toxic mine tailings called “chat piles”- many are more than 13 stories tall. Unaware of the hazard and the toxicity local people  used the chat to build roads, for the filling in of driveways and even for children’s playgrounds.

Residents are now aware of the dangers from the chat in that it contains health hazardous levels of lead, zinc and other toxic heavy metals. During rain, water courses through the chat piles and underground tunnels and the runoff turns the local waterways a surreal orange with pollution. Moreover, the mining has so weakened the ground that cave-ins have swallowed entire homes.

But the cleanup has floundered for and in 2014 the EPA contracted with the Quapaw to restore a historical site on tribal land. The Tribe next requested that they be authorized to take charge of the entire cleanup. After some reluctance on the part of the EPA an agreement was reached granting the Tribe’s request.

So far the Quapaw has removed two million tons of waste. It is estimated there are 50 million more tons to be moved in the cleanup effort. This is the residue that is left from mining that ended at Tar Creek over 40 years ago.

But, the key factor in the moving of the toxic metals is funding.  Unfortunately, with funding at the current rate Tar Creek and its people will have to wait several more decades for the cleanup to be completed.     

“If the EPA wanted to fix it they would put more money in it and fix it all at once. They wouldn’t budget to do 100 acres at a time when there are 26,000 acres that need to be done” concluded Jim.

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