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'Not just a flood, but a toxic flood': Lead mining waste sits in the same floodwaters as Northeast Oklahoma homes and businesses

Two people stand facing away from the camera, leaning against the guardrail of a bridge. They're looking out over a wide creek of green water. It's lined with shrubs and trees whose leaves are turning yellow for fall. The sky is cloudy, and far in the background, a pile of gray gravel looms over the creek.
Graycen Wheeler
Toxic chat piles, like the one pictured in the distance here, dot the area around Tar Creek.

Standing in the water as it winds between a disc golf course and a nursing home, Rebecca Jim and her companions are soaking up the natural beauty of autumn in Miami, Okla.

But a threat looms ever present. It comes from the creek.

“The people do not just get a flood,” Jim told her audience. “They get a toxic flood.”

Miami is the largest city in Ottawa County in Oklahoma’s northeastern corner. The area is dotted with closed lead and zinc mines. Before they closed in the 1960s, those mines generated massive piles of chat—leftover gravel from metal processing that wasn’t useful to sell but still contains high levels of heavy metals.

The county is filled with scenic creeks and streams. One of those is Tar Creek, which carries dangerous levels of lead, zinc and cadmium from the old mines into Miami and other communities. Downstream, the creek joins the Neosho River and becomes part of Grand Lake.

Two people stand in a low-running creekbed wearing orange t-shirts that say "I flood and I vote." They are standing next to each other and looking at someone to the right of the shot. Martin Lively is talking and gesturing, and Rebecca Jim is standing with her hands in her pockets.
Graycen Wheeler
Rebecca Jim and Martin Lively describe the map to a crowd while standing in the bed of Tar Creek as it runs through Miami.

“We knew Tar Creek had metals in it, but no one had imagined the amount of stuff coming down from the chat piles,” Jim said.

Tar Creek is a Superfund site—an area so contaminated with hazardous materials that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has earmarked it for investigation and clean-up. The Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma and the state Department of Environmental Quality oversee the clean-up of Tar Creek. Since they began in the 1980s, those agencies have spent more than $300 million removing toxic materials from the area around Tar Creek.

When Tar Creek floods, it spreads the lead, zinc and cadmium in its waters across the communities of Ottawa County.

Jim is the co-founder and executive director of LEAD Agency, a group based in Miami seeking to educate the community about Tar Creek’s toxic history and advocate for its cleanup.

“Imagine Tar Creek flooded and all that chat in the flood water when it is raging,” said Martin Lively, another environmental advocate with the LEAD Agency. “Think about what's happening to that chat in that moment. Think about everything else in that location that is underwater. All of that comes right through here every time.”

Mapping out the problem

“We wanted a map for the citizens in Miami to understand their relationship with water,” Jim said. “Where is it? And when can it harm me?”

At first, LEAD Agency was interested in mapping how changes to the management of the Pensacola Dam on Grand Lake would affect flooding in Miami.

“What we originally wanted was a map where we could lower and raise the water,” Jim said. “That'd be our dream: what if two feet level comes up? What does that look like?”

Green water flows through a dirt weir before it's joined by a rust-colored stream of water.
Graycen Wheeler
A rust-colored stream of polluted water (left) joins Tar Creek north of Miami.

That goal evolved when they connected with the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, a program that helps activists team up with researchers to address problems in their communities.

“The only questions we can answer are the ones that we have data to answer,” said Kate Meierdiercks, a professor of environmental science at Siena College in New York. She worked with Jim and Thriving Earth Exchange fellow Jessica Tran to build the map.

They didn’t have the data to project how Miami’s flood risk would rise along with the water levels at Grand Lake. But they did have a FEMA floodplain map and data on land ownership in Ottawa County. They also had maps of chat piles and cleaned-up properties from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

“We found more and more layers, and we started adding more and more things to this map,” Lively said.. “And what we wound up with is amazing.”

But the map shows that chat piles sit in those floodplains too, adding even more toxic materials to the same water that seeps into people’s houses, schools and businesses.

“Look at the layer that has the pink dots of which houses have been remediated,” said Jessica Tran, describing different features of the map she helped build. “Then look at how the floodplain overlaps with chat piles. It tells the story that if it floods, it can carry waste from the chat back into yards and homes, even of places that have been cleaned up already.”

Federal, tribal and state agencies have already removed the lead from more than 600 properties in Ottawa County, according to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality’s most recent data.

Yard cleanup is free for residents, but the process is difficult and disruptive. The remediation team has to remove lead-tainted dirt and replace it with new soil until there’s a thick layer of safe soil.

But the new map shows that many cleaned-up properties lie in flood areas, putting them at risk for recontamination.

“They hadn’t known to be worried,” Jim said. “They hadn't known to think about that.”

What can be done about flooding in Northeast Oklahoma?

Climate change is making natural disasters more frequent. And Jim says the flood risks in Miami are at odds with the desires of their downstream neighbors at Grand Lake, where higher water levels mean more tourism.

This year, the Grand River Dam Authority received special permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to keep Grand Lake at a higher level than normal throughout the winter. The GRDA is also looking to increase the depth of the lake by two feet when they relicense their dam operations next year.

“The town of Miami, Oklahoma, will not exist if flooding increases — which it will,” Jim said in a press release about the map. “This is a question of environmental justice.”

LEAD Agency and the mapmaking team hope the flood map encourages more people to ponder that question. Jim said she’s talking with local and federal officials about the toxic flood risks in Ottawa County.

“We wouldn't have had a chance to talk with them without the map,” Jim said. “That got their attention—it got everybody's attention.”

Six people stand in a low-running creek bed surrounded by greenery. Some of them are wearing waders. Another person stands off to the side, under a concrete support for a metal pipe running over the creek.
Graycen Wheeler
LEAD Agency educates the Ottawa County residents about Tar Creek’s toxic history and advocates for its cleanup.

Jim said that community members have been finding themselves on the map. They can check whether their homes fall on the floodplain or see which parts of their community sit on remediated chat piles.

The Indian Health Service has also been using the tool to identify homes with Indigenous children living east of the Superfund site, Jim said. IHS wants to test their wells and make sure they’re not contaminated with toxic metals.

“As soon as we identify which houses to knock on the door, they can go right away and determine if those people are at risk of lead poisoning from their wells,” Jim said. “If so, they have the money to hook them up to rural water and get them off their well water.”

Meierdiercks said she and Tran are already updating the map with new data on land ownership. She hopes to hand it over to a local person who can oversee the data and adapt the tool for the future.

“I'm a big proponent of kind of handing it over so that the community can have more behind-the-scenes access to it and change it as community needs change,” Meierdiercks said.

As the map grows and evolves, Jim, Meierdiercks and Tran all said they hope it will continue to help the communities of Ottawa County.

“If we can save the health of individuals into the future by using the map, I'm really pleased,” Jim said.

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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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