- Associated Press - Sunday, September 21, 2014

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - A federally backed cleanup of thousands of lead-contaminated properties that lie in or near the Tar Creek Superfund site in northeastern Oklahoma is finally finished, but environmental agencies predicted it could take decades longer before the geography within the 40 square-mile area of former mining towns is completely remediated.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state officials will commemorate on Monday the end of major cleanup efforts of some 3,000 yards, parks, driveways and alleyways in nine communities affected by pollution from the once-toxic site. The towns where the $60 million in decontamination work was done include Afton, Commerce, Fairland, Miami, Narcissa, North Miami, Peoria, Quapaw and Wyandotte.

Decades of lead and zinc mining gutted the area’s landscape and produced tons of a hazardous byproduct called chat - mountains of which were piled high outside the mining operations. Cleanup of the Tar Creek site - once considered among the most polluted places in the country - has been roughly 30 years in the making.

Two neighboring Oklahoma communities where the lead pollution was more prevalent - Picher and Cardin - dissolved after the federal government offered buyouts to many residents before homes and businesses there were razed out of concern for public health and safety due to sinkholes that occasionally swallowed properties into the hollowed-out underground mines.

The EPA also plans during Monday’s event at the Ottawa County Courthouse to hand over to Oklahoma responsibility for cleanup of overlooked properties. The EPA will still have a presence, however, during the next phase of the cleanup - which includes studying the effects of lead contamination on the geography of the area, such as in local waterways, said Carl Edlund, director of the Dallas-based EPA Superfund Division.

Edlund said in a recent interview that EPA’s major role in the property cleanup was to reduce the public health risk to residents - especially children- due to the lead waste that blew through town and was absorbed into the soil over several decades.

Medical studies conducted years after the Picher mines closed around 1970 suggested the chat - once thought harmless by many locals, enough so that kids used them as sledding hills in winter - revealed elevated lead levels in the blood of Tar Creek-area children.

“There’s been tremendous improvement in (the blood lead levels in children) in Ottawa County” due to the remediation,” Edlund said. “And that’s really important, not only for the kids living in Ottawa County, but for the generations that follow.”

Even with completion on a major portion of remediation at the Superfund site, some local environmental groups say there’s far more cleanup work to be accomplished - especially in assessing how local waterways and wildlife have been affected by the past decades of pollution.

“It’s still not clean, it’s still not over,” said Rebecca Jim, executive director of the Miami, Oklahoma-based nonprofit LEAD, or Local Environmental Action Demanded, which has championed the cleanup. “We’re finding lead in the fish and in the streams and the lakes, so we know (the pollution) is still there.”

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