Tar Creek-money pit

Wednesday, November 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Oklahoma Governor Keating developed a task force to find solutions for the 20 year-old Tar Creek Superfund site. State legislators have voted down spending packages for five northeastern Oklahoma towns where children suffer the effects of lead poisoning. Local officials in Ottawa County debate whether to just pick up and move the towns of Picher and Cardin. All the while, the federal government continues to dump tens of millions of dollars into the area. As News on Six reporter Tami Marler explains, some say Tar Creek is a bottomless pit.

40 square miles of manmade mountains, hazardous materials left behind by decades of lead and zinc mining. But look closer, and there are hundreds of people - with their own reasons for staying. "There's no reason for staying, other than Picher Pride, really. There's no reason for staying other than the pride of the people here locally." Some stay because they've been here all their lives; some because they're too poor to move. Nearly a third of Ottawa County households earn less than $10,000 a year, the average income is less than $13,000. "Well, many of the people can't afford to move, that's one of the reasons. And where are they going to move to?" And who would buy their homes? Frank Wood doubts he could get $20,000 for his. Not just because it's in the middle of America's number one superfund site, but because he doesn't own the land. About 70% of the land in Ottawa County is owned by Indian heirs, and managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The rent is skyrocketing. "Ours were in the neighborhood of a hundred dollars for the two lots here; and it increased 800%." A Picher family moved their trailer from this property because the rent got too high. It was remediated in the first phase of the cleanup, at an average cost of $25,000. "So far the figures show in Picher and the surrounding towns that people are moving off Indian lots because of the increased land rents." Ed Keheley was part of Governor Keating's Tar Creek task force. One of the top priorities, removing soil with dangerous amounts of lead, and replacing it with clean soil and grass. The EPA has spent nearly $30 million on residential yards alone. The state has pledged more than $4 million so Congress would approve $35 million in matching funds. The work has just begun on BIA-controlled land. "This is your tax money at work. Tens of millions of dollars to clean up yards of lead in the Tar Creek superfund site. Many in the area question - how wisely is your money being spent?" "And when I look at the condition of these lots after they've been remediated there's a question of whether or not they're still going to be satisfactory enough for people to return to live on." When we came back to check on remediation efforts, we found trash and debris scraped to the back of lots and left there, abandoned homes still sitting atop foundations of chat, while the rest of the property is cleared. The work is being done between contaminated lots, surrounded by chat piles.” One of the concerns is, once a yard is remediated, lead dust will fly off of the chat piles and re-contaminate the yard. Some folks say it's already happened." "Another study has been done that shows the yard is now high again." Frank Wood's yard was cleared in 1998. Today it's back up to more than three times the acceptable level. "I think that's going to continue to happen. I think as the ore blows off of the chat piles, and so forth, that it's just going to continue to re-contaminate." Nearly $90 million have been poured into the Tar Creek area in 20 years. How much more will it take?