Who’s in charge of fixing the environment in eastern Oklahoma?

This story was published February 22, 2022 in Grist in partnership with Newsy.

The town of Picher, Oklahoma, on the Quapaw reservation, is home to one of the largest Superfund sites in the United States. Tar Creek, which feeds into the Neosho River then on to Grand Lake, runs gold with zinc. Underground reservoirs seep lead-tainted water and other toxic chemicals when it rains. Trees along the waterway have turned shades of orange near their roots where a steady flow of chemicals have oxidized and crusted over. On the landscape, gray piles of silicone, dolomite, and limestone waste stand two to three stories high. In 1994, the Indian Health Service reported that 34 percent of Native American children in the area had lead concentrations in their bloodstream well above the federal limit — a lasting legacy after more than a century of mining for zinc and lead at multiple sites on the reservation.  

“It’s everywhere,” said Quapaw Nation Secretary Treasurer Guy Barker. “Trace amounts of lead within drinking water, groundwater —  it’s also in the air. It’s blowing around, it’s in the ground soils in the sandbox that the kids are playing in.”

Mining ended in the 1970s, and in 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency named the 40 square miles around Picher a Superfund site. Beginning in 2005, the state of Oklahoma offered buyouts of homes to relocate families, including many Quapaw citizens, to safer areas, and by 2010, the EPA also began buyouts while contracting with companies to conduct cleanup.

In 2012, the Quapaw Nation took over soil remediation efforts and cleanup with a multi-million dollar contract from the EPA, removing large piles of mining waste and rehabilitation of the land. But last year, a decade after the Quapaw took on the cleanup, the Supreme Court ruled that nearly all of Eastern Oklahoma was an Indian reservation, raising absorbing questions about environmental jurisdiction in the region. 

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Tristan Ahtone

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