Quapaw Tribal Citizens Will Receive Equal Payment In Environmental Damage Settlement
Citizens of the Quapaw Nation will get more of the settlement money disbursed to the Tribe to pay for environmental damage done to Quapaw land by the lead and zinc mines in the Tar Creek area of northeast Oklahoma.
Following a nearly 17-year legal battle, a federal court recommended that tribal citizens be paid $137.5 million in 2020.
Former Chairman John Berrey began work on the lawsuit in 2002 and originally sued for $175 million.
"I hope this settlement in some way helps settle accounts on part of our past," Berrey wrote in a statement to the tribal nation in 2019.
After the settlement was reached, Berrey announced citizens would be getting $15,000 over a five-year period. That meant that $58 million would have been reserved by the Tribe. That announcement prompted fierce discussion on social media and concerns that citizens wouldn’t receive equal amounts of the settlement.
The resolution (082121-A) passed by the Quapaw Tribal Council in August 2021 changed the structure. Now, the entire $137.5 million settlement will be disbursed equally to all 5,290 citizens in one lump sum payment each of $25,990, rather than $15,000 over five years.
The lawsuit was filed to address Bureau of Indian Affairs mismanagement of tribal trust lands for decades. In 1834, the Quapaw were removed to Northeast Oklahoma from their homelands in Arkansas and Kansas.
In the late 1800s, rich lead and zinc deposits were discovered on Quapaw lands in Tar Creek and Picher, Oklahoma, resulting in a rush to mine and lease these lands. The town developed around the mining industry, and nearly half of all lead and zinc used for World War I was produced in the area.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, $1 billion dollars worth of zinc and lead ore were mined at Tar Creek between 1908 and 1950.
After World War II, mining dropped off at the Tar Creek and people left the area, but millions of dollars in environmental damage had been done during the mining boom. The area was designated as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1983, making it eligible for cleanup, but the process was slow.
According to the University of Oklahoma, 34% of Quapaw children had lead concentrations well above the federal limit and lead and arsenic were found in blood samples of tribal and non-tribal citizens living in the area.
"All these damages were done to trust land," said Guy Barker, Quapaw Nation's Secretary Treasurer. "You know, mining waste left on the ground, environmental damages or mismanaging their agricultural property."
The legal claims of Quapaw citizens who continued living in the area were ignored for years because of the statute of limitations, and the Quapaw Nation didn’t file suit against the BIA until 2002, decades after the mining stopped.
Even with the new Tribal Council resolution, the funds must still be authorized by Congress before they are distributed.
House Resolution 4715, sponsored by Oklahoma Congressmen Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, is awaiting a hearing.
"If you are an enrolled member on or before September 27, 2019, you would be considered part of the lawsuit for its purposes," said Barker.
The question now: when will the settlement money hit citizens' bank accounts?
"I'd need a crystal ball to tell you that one," said Barker.
The bill is currently in the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee and must be passed by that committee and the full House before it is debated in the Senate.
Barker says the long Congressional process following a 17-year legal battle makes the wait for money owed to the Tribe even longer.
"I think that the appropriations process is problematic for a lot of tribes," said Barker. “It requires them to go in and request Congress to create more money in their budget in order to execute this funding for any of these types of situations and ultimately becomes a very heated partisan political debate."
Editors Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Quapaw citizens would receive $5,000 annually over a five-year period. All 5,290 Quapaw citizens will receive one lump sum of $25,990. We've updated the story to reflect that.