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Tar Creek, Oklahoma, so polluted residents moved out

It’s one of the dirtiest places in America.

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robert99 robert99 Sweden Posts: 1360
1 7 Dec 2017

Tar Creek, Oklahoma, is breathtaking in a terrible way: At one time the world’s deepest source of lead and zinc, the three-town region is now a cratered landscape so poisonous that no one, aside from 10 holdouts, can live there. Mountains of ashlike “chat,” a toxic residue from lead-zinc milling, rise majestically among the remains of homes torn from their foundations. Abandoned pets forage around the ruins. A child’s teddy bear lies sprawled in a ghostly living room. A gorilla statue fronts an empty high school, atop a sign proclaiming “1A Football State Champs, 1984.”

Tar Creek is also part of the environmental legacy of one of the state’s—and nation’s—leading politicians, Senator Jim Inhofe, and his longtime ally, Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who is now head of President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. After the EPA struggled to clean up the area, in 2006, Inhofe endorsed a plan in which a trust overseen by local citizens would use federal dollars to purchase homes and businesses in the toxic region so residents could move elsewhere. Then, when the plan proved so problematic that it spawned more than a half-dozen civil lawsuits and an audit into possible criminal wrongdoing, Pruitt, as the state’s attorney general, invoked an exception to state freedom-of-information laws to keep the audit from being an open public record.

Now, that decision is coming into new light as many Oklahomans clamor for the audit to be released, suggesting that its revelations will prove embarrassing to Inhofe, who played a key role in designing the buyout plan, and cast doubt on Pruitt’s decision not to move forward with charges. Last week, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit called the Campaign for Accountability raised the stakes even further, filing suit in Oklahoma courts to force the release of the audit.

“If you take a look at Scott Pruitt’s record, you see a general disregard for transparency,” said Daniel Stevens, the group’s executive director. “I don’t think it’s outside our bounds to say that Pruitt is trying to hide evidence of criminal wrongdoing.”

Pruitt, in an interview, dismissed the idea that he was covering anything up, saying his former office’s grand jury unit reviewed the audit and determined that no charges were warranted. He said he declined to make it public because he didn’t want innocent people to be besmirched, even though the auditor rejected that reasoning and maintained it should be a public document. “It was important to protect the individuals’ reputation that were in that investigation,” Pruitt said.

“We were lied to and deceived from Day One,” said Gloria Workman, who said her son has learning disabilities from growing up in the polluted zone of Tar Creek, which had lead-poisoning levels in children that were three times higher than those registered in Flint, Michigan, during the peak of its recent water crisis. “Not only were we losing our homes, we were raped in the process.”

“It was a nightmare,” said Mary Thompson, who was still awaiting a resolution from the trust when an EF4 tornado ripped through Tar Creek in 2008, throwing bodies and trailers through the sky, killing six people and destroying more than 100 homes. Without homes, many people took lower-than-expected buyout offers—however insufficient they were perceived to be—because they had nothing left, she said.

Indeed, after the last prospector looking for ore packed up and left in the mid-1970s, people looked to casinos and farming to make a living. But the residue from decades of mining was poisoning them. In 1979, acid mine water leached into the ground, threatening the area’s aquifers, killing fish and turning creeks a rusty orange color. When the federal Superfund program—designed to clean up the nation’s most polluted and contaminated land—kicked off in the early 1980s, Tar Creek was named to the inaugural National Priorities List. It’s still on the list.

The EPA has spent more than $176 million over the past 25 years on cleanup work inside the 42-square-mile-area, on projects from plugging mine shafts to removing contaminated surface soil in people’s yards. Though the amount of money sounds large, it hasn’t been nearly enough to remove the toxic dangers, and many residents insist the cleanup was mishandled from the get-go. In some cases, the removal of soil resulted in sloping yards, which, during bouts of rain, caused flooding and mold inside houses. In 2000, the FBI raided the offices of the EPA’s prime contractor at Tar Creek, Morrison-Knudsen. The company later settled a lawsuit brought by the federal government alleging false representation of billing and progress reports for a sum of $1 million. In the settlement, the company made no admission of wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, the environmental hazards began to multiply: Shortly after the start of that Superfund spending spree, in 1993, researchers at the University of Oklahoma found that 34 percent of Quapaw children were living with lead concentrations above the federal limit. Further studies found alarming rates of lead and arsenic in both the tribal and non-tribal populations. In 1997, a university-lead study estimated that 21 percent of children near Tar Creek had elevated blood-lead levels (defined as 10 micrograms per liter at the time), which is three times higher than the highest measurements found in Flint, Michigan, in 2015. The learning disabilities and memory loss that had plagued the schools and curtailed lifespans for decades suddenly had a culprit.