- Associated Press - Monday, January 1, 2018

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - On a cloudy, misty day the view from the top of the Fisher Chat Pile, which towers some 150 to 200 feet above the ghost town of Picher, offers a scope and feel that fits the seemingly never-ending 40-square-mile cleanup project area that is the Tar Creek Superfund Site.

Dozens more of the gray mountains like Fisher - the largest have nicknames, others have designators like CP-007 - are randomly scattered from Picher toward the town of Commerce, north across the Kansas border and east toward Missouri.

They are ghostly monuments made of gray chat - pea-sized flakes of gravel and fine sand and dust remnants left after extraction of lead and zinc that fueled the tristate area economy, U.S. efforts in World Wars I and II, and through the 1960s.

But the leftovers poisoned the lands and waters, sickened residents during and afterward and left hollowed-out shafts underground that still have a dangerous tendency of collapsing.

The piles reach upward and fade into the gray sky as far as the eye can see. The place is known as one of the most contaminated sites in the United States.

Early last month, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced efforts to expedite Superfund Site work across the country, including at Tar Creek. He called the 30-year lives of some sites “unacceptable.” But on-the-ground efforts to speed things along might be hard to notice in months and years to come. Much of the work centers on behind-the-scenes legal wrangling and negotiations between agencies and landowners.

Experts are hard-pressed to guess at an end-date for the Tar Creek cleanup, which already has been on the books 34 years and involves well over $300 million in projects now underway and yet to come, the Tulsa World reported. A day’s tour of the area shows at least some work is progressing no matter the political noise, the visually staggering aspects of the project, and imagination of what challenges await as the chat piles disappear and more attention is focused on area waterways.

As he escorted a reporter and photographer up the Fisher pile, Zach Paden, Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality project engineer for the part of the project that involves removal of the chat piles, said if you’re going to walk up the hill a damp day is a good one to do it.

“Well, there’s less dust,” he said.

While Tar Creek is known as one of the most contaminated sites in the U.S., its zinc, lead and cadmium dangers are not the kind that require a person, or even remediation workers, to walk about in Hazmat suits at all times, Paden said.

The surface of the piles resembles a sand dune or a driveway made of fine gravel. Rain has washed over the piles for years and left larger pieces of chat on the surface and pushed down the fine sands that can blow around like dust.

Being around the material requires some simple precautions to remain safe, he said. On the other hand, it’s a bad idea to shovel up the material into a pickup load for use as a driveway or walkway at your home, he said.

The long-term exposure the material is what led to illnesses that made it necessary to evacuate Picher.

Looking down at the ghost town, at the foot of the Fisher pile, it is now a series of empty blocks with concrete pads where houses stood as little as 10 years ago.

Trees, native grasses, weeds and brush fill what were once yards. Plants have found their way up through cracks in the concrete pads, the driveways and the now-lifeless streets. Each block is cordoned off by barbed wire fencing with signs that label the property as that of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Most of the chat has been removed and the yards are remediated. But what remains a danger are random cave-ins caused by mining tunnels that run below much of the area, Paden said.

The residential cleanup is not his area of responsibility, but the so-called Operational Unit 2 part of the project has made great strides and much of the remaining work involves inspections and figuring out what to do about potential cave-in areas.

“Once the remediation is complete at the site, the area can be used for purposes such as agricultural, commercial, and in many areas residential,” EPA Region 6 spokesman David Gray said of the area’s eventual fate.

All that’s left of the town now is the water tower that proclaims “Picher Gorillas since 1918” in faded red paint, and the abandoned high school where the Gorillas studied, practiced and competed in football and track. The Quapaw Tribal Police still keep an office just off the highway near shells of other homes with “keep out” spray-painted on the outside. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation has an equipment barn there as well.

Much of the rest of what is in view from atop the Fisher Pile and beyond town is a mixture of timber, pastures, farmland and what Paden calls “moonscape,” that is, acres upon acres of landscape covered by chat not in large piles but in a layer, maybe just two feet thick, maybe 10 or 15.

DEQ and Paden’s counterparts with the Quapaw Tribe are tackling the “moonscape” areas and chat piles.

Cleanup of the sites on state and private lands are directed by the DEQ, with the Quapaw Tribe carrying out the work. On tribal lands, the Quapaws administer the jobs as the governing agency.

In late December, Paden came to the area to check on a new DEQ project that involves removing the chat pile called CP-007 as part of a 200-acre remediation near Elm Creek, and to meet with landowners near another nearly completed project at Beaver Creek for a final inspection phase.

The Beaver Creek site was just a few acres but the green pasture behind new barbed wire fencing and a gate left little clue it was once a pile of mining debris and brush.

“It really is kind of fun turning moonscape into pastureland,” Paden said.

Meanwhile at CP-007, a chat pile about 50 feet high and big around as a baseball stadium is being carved away by excavators that scoop materials into a parade of 16-ton capacity dump trucks.

The trucks take the chat to a nearby asphalt plant where the material is divided into usable rock and sands and waste that will have to be buried in a mine waste repository.

“Because the material is sealed when it’s in the asphalt, it’s OK to use for road building,” Paden said.

Paden estimates the chat pile itself, the part that contains the best and most material on the site that will be used in asphalt, will be gone in about eight months. The full 200-acre job will take three years, however.

“Look out here,” Paden said, pointing to broad areas covered with a layer of chat in places just a couple feet thick, in others probably 10 feet or more. A nearly perfectly round, dark-water pond at least 30 feet deep marked a mining room cave-in location.

“It will be filled in with material and that will be covered up with dirt,” he said.

When finished, the property will be opened for use by a pair of local landowners and they likely will use it for crops or for grazing, as are their adjacent fields, he said.

It’s just 200 acres among 40 square miles, but the work is progressing and three years from now another small piece of the Tar Creek puzzle will turned from moonscape to pastureland.


Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com

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