Governor Brad Henry wants action from federal government on Tar Creek

Tuesday, October 21st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PICHER, Okla. (AP) -- Gov. Brad Henry stared Tuesday into the orange-stained waters of Tar Creek and said it was time for the federal government to fix mining's mess.

Residents of one of the most contaminated spots in the nation cannot afford to keep waiting for a comprehensive solution, Henry said. But he also said the state alone cannot afford to help them.

"I think the federal government is just going to have to sit down and face up to the fact that it is responsible for the cleanup here," Henry said. "I just think it's time for action."

Henry had visited the Tar Creek Superfund Site as a gubernatorial candidate. But Tuesday's tour was his first as governor.

He gazed down on the towns of Picher and Cardin from atop a giant mound of contaminated waste left from the area's lead and zinc mining heyday. He peered into an enormous hole that had opened up at the site of an improperly sealed mine shaft.

He sat down and listened as community leaders, business owners, school officials and residents talked about living with the pollution and their frustration with efforts to clean it up.

"The federal government and the mining companies raped this area and then they ran away and left us," said Rayma Grimes, who owns a nursing home.

Kimberly Pace, principal at Picher-Cardin Elementary School, described the painful struggle of some students in learning to read. School officials believe exposure to lead in the region may be to blame.

Reading skills that normally take children 14 to 25 repetitions to master take many Picher-Cardin students 75 to 100 repetitions, she said.

"Every day, we diminish the propensity for our children to pursue the American dream," she said.

Miami's mayor told the governor prospective businesses often ask "what are you going to do about Picher?"

Some Picher and Cardin residents endorsed a proposed voluntary buyout as the only answer to protecting their health. Resident Bill Lake said he spoke for those who believe buyouts should only be used as a last resort.

Henry took notes but said he had formulated no solution to the host of health and safety problems that landed 40 square miles of Ottawa County on the Superfund list 20 years ago.

The governor said he planned a trip in coming weeks to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal environmental officials and try to build consensus among Oklahoma's congressional delegation on a comprehensive plan.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., who is running for retiring Sen. Don Nickles' seat, are split on the issue of buyouts.

Henry said any buyout should be voluntary and that it and "everything else" should be on the table.

"It's got to be a solution that addresses the immediate health needs, as well as the long term environmental damage," he said. "And I just don't see anything happening right now that addresses the immediate health needs."

Henry said he'd rather help bring officials together on a solution than attempt to sue the federal government into taking responsibility.

"This is a bigger issue than just Picher-Cardin," the governor said, standing at the point where oxidation turns the Tar Creek orange in a flow that eventually reaches Grand Lake. "This is an Oklahoma issue. This is a national issue."

Meanwhile, a researcher from the University of Kansas School of Medicine, Dr. John S. Neuberger, reported Tuesday on health issues at the site.

He said an examination of death certificates showed an excess of deaths from stroke and heart disease in Ottawa County. But he noted there had been no studies looking into possible ties to lead or cadmium exposure. The county also has a high number of smokers, he said.

He also noted there had been no follow-up studies in children with high blood lead levels to examine health issues such as learning disabilities or hyperactivity.

Along with such studies, Neuberger recommended year-round air sampling for heavy metals because of blowing dust.