Picher Oklahoma belongs to a small group of places around the planet that have been evacuated and deemed uninhabitable. In 2006, a study performed by the Army Corp of Engineers showed that 86% of the buildings located in Picher, Oklahoma, had been undermined. The undermining left the town buildings subject to collapse at any moment; this, unfortunately, included the town school.
A buyout was proposed and enacted by state and federal authorities, but the process was slow. Not everyone was enthusiastic about giving up on the place they grew up. To the outside world, Picher was a toxic wasteland, but to many, it was home.
In 2008, an EF4 tornado took that choice away as it destroyed nearly 150 of the remaining townhomes. The 2000 census showed a population of over 1,000 - in 2010, that population had dropped to 20.
In 1980, the first Tar Creek task force was created by the then Governor of Oklahoma. Fast forward to 2012, and the Quapaw Nation (QN) finally got the opportunity to clean up their own land.
For Quapaw Nation, this was a historic moment, but it was also understood to be a massive undertaking.
"At the rate we are receiving EPA’s congressionally appropriated funds, year-to-year, we are looking at several decades to complete the remediation of Operable Unit 4, which includes the chat piles in and around Picher," said Craig Kreman.
Craig has been with Quapaw Nation Environmental Department as the Environmental Engineer since 2013, serving under Tim Kent, the Environmental Director.
Craig stated "There is no timeline currently set for the remediation of Operable Unit 5 which includes the sediment and surface water at the site. EPA and its stakeholders are currently working on studies that will ultimately lead to a “Record of Decision”, or “ROD”, for OU5 which will finalize cleanup decisions and establish a timeline for the cleanup. This OU5 ROD will be a very important part to the cleanup of Tar Creek, as it includes cleaning up waterways and riparian areas that are culturally significant to the Quapaw people."
There's also the issue of gaining access to some of the lands. Although chat and bull-rock piles line many of the properties in the area, not everyone is understanding of the danger presented by their continual presence.
"Some common issues that we have periodically with the cleanup of the Tar Creek Superfund Site under Operable Unit 4 includes maintaining good landowner relationships and promoting chat sales while ensuring compliance with chat sales regulations," Craig continued.
"It is the desire of the Environmental Office/QSA Remediation to build and foster a strong relationship with the land/chat owners in order to more effectively facilitate cleanup at the Tar Creek site, while meeting the requirements of EPA and ODEQ We would like to help maintain cooperation between the tribal government and the individual land/chat owners to ensure adequate two-way communication regarding the activities at the Tar Creek Site. The Environmental Department also continues to work with the Nation’s Realty Office to help facilitate chat sales."
This, of course, comes with the cooperation of many departments within Quapaw Nation, including Quapaw Services Authority, the Realty Department and Quapaw Nations Tribal Historic Preservation Office. It also requires partnerships with local, State, and Federal agencies.
"The Nation also continues to work with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality on unrestricted lands across the Tar Creek Superfund Site, including Beaver Creek and Elm Creek Unrestricted properties, which are located east and west of Quapaw, respectively. Since these projects are on non-tribal fee property, the State of Oklahoma receives EPA funding to manage and complete the work. The State, through the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ), then funds the Nation to perform the cleanup. This represents the first ever partnership between a State and a Tribe where a Tribe is performing the cleanup on non-tribal lands."
Tar Creek itself is fed by underground springs that share the mining scars, leaving the vegetation around the creek a rust color. This rust is caused by iron hydroxide discharging through those springs originating from the aquifer being contaminated itself.
The properties that have been undermined may never hold buildings again, but several of the once highly contaminated sites now grow crops and hold livestock. Craig had this to say when asked if there was any way the land could be used today.
"Once a site has been cleaned up, the most common use of the remediated land is agricultural in nature. From grazing to row crops, we have, in consultation with the landowners and leasees, created various agricultural landscapes once cleanup is complete. Soon we plan to plant native grasses in a pasture that can later be showcased as an example of what once was, and what could be, across tribal lands. Additionally, in cooperation with EPA, the Nation looked at the feasibility of constructing a utility-scale solar farm along East 20 Road and 560 Road, west of Picher. Future uses of the land could also include forested lands for management of timber, as well as a wetland/nature preserve. Use of the land is typically determined on a site-by-site basis; however, on properties that are undermined, building projects (especially residential building projects) are eliminated as post-cleanup use alternatives."