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Making Waves — Oklahoma

May 13, 2024

Climate problems may seem overwhelming, but people all around this great nation are taking action. This week we’re looking at OKLAHOMA (OK) and the question is: What is the link between making bullets and the old OK motto Labor omnia vincit (Work conquers all)?

Let’s go to the Ozark Mountain highlands, with its underground streams and bubbling springs, beautiful waterfalls, caverns, and gorgeous vistas. Ottawa County, in the far northeastern corner of Oklahoma, borders Kansas to the North and Missouri to the East. The county is home to the Quapaw Nation, among other native peoples. Although only a little bigger than Forest County PA, Ottawa County is more than three times as populous. Traditionally, the Quapaw hold communal ownership of tribal lands. However, at the turn of the 20th century, the federal government was trying out a new exploitative strategy, which was privatizing land ownership for Quapaw members, and then luring individual owners one at a time into giving up mineral rights with promises of lucrative mining deals, which were surging locally.

In 1913, just six years after Oklahoma gained statehood, the Tri-State Mining District had a foothold in the region, covering 1,188 square miles of OK, MO, and KS. Mining companies dug zinc and lead out of the ground for ammunition production in WW I & II, right through the 1950s. Cadmium and a slew of other heavy metals were mining by-products, left behind in giant dusty mounds of toxic mine tailings known as chat.

Many small towns grew up in this region and endured even when mining ceased. And the chat? Over 30 million tons of this toxic waste were abandoned in the Tri-State Mining District, some used as landfills in people’s yards, or for the construction of driveways and streets. It took years for groundwater to fill the huge underground mining voids and empty drill holes. Soluble poisons leached into aquifers and seeped into surface waters. In terms of public health, it was already too late to reverse the inevitable: heavy metal contamination turning up in local drinking water supplies. Residents, especially children, suffered lead poisoning. In 1983, Ottawa County’s Tar Creek area, the region’s most toxic site, was added to the national list of priorities for environmental clean-up (aka Superfund sites), by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The problem was not comprehensively addressed until the 2000s. Today, a half dozen Superfund sites still dot the Tri-State Mining District.

Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find a fun and engaging podcast about toxic dump clean-up. Instead, I offer a parallel historical tragedy, just four counties to the West. Listen to a podcast about the book upon which Martin Scorsese’s latest film is based, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” It portrays a horrific period for the Osage Nation, whose mineral rights – called headrights – were sought by powerful oil interests in Oklahoma, with a cruel twist: the more pure your Osage blood lineage, the more likely that you would be declared totally incompetent to manage your own land allotment. Guardians were appointed with nefarious intent and, one by one, headright holders began turning up dead, from 1921-1926.
Most Notorious! A True Crime History Podcast (Feb. 3, 2020)
Episode 144: Oklahoma’s Osage Murders [58 mins]

For an insightful look into the same topic from the perspective of an indigenous lawyer, Wilson Pipestem, have a listen to the alternate pick for this week. 5 minutes into the pod, hear about Martin Scorsese’s time with Osage members:
OKHR Leads (Feb. 7, 2022)
41: Wilson Pipestem – Discussing “Killers of the Flower Moon” [~64 mins]

Luckily, murderous intentions hadn’t developed toward the Quapaw Nation, back in Ottawa County. Instead, the mining industry left a toxic inheritance, its own kind of slow death.

This is where Labor omnia vincit (Work conquers all) comes in. The clean-up work at Tar Creek has gone on for more than 20 years, even though it represents only 3% of the affected drainage area in the mining district. Many chat mounds were removed; poisoned wells were capped; surface soils were removed and replaced; streams were dredged and wetlands were restructured. In the face of the disaster, some small towns had to be disbanded and the government paid to relocate residents. Much progress has been made, even though persistent groundwater problems due to acid mining water and other toxins remain in some town wells. Fish are starting to repopulate creeks and streams. Environmental Engineer Bob Nairn, who has worked with the project for two decades said, “The irreversible damage thing struck me as inappropriate, not only as a scientist, but as a citizen. I thought, ‘We can do something about this. Let’s figure out what we can do.’”

This is serious hard work, and in my view, it’s essential that federal organizations and our tax dollars support the work of cleaning up the land we all depend on. Even so, all this effort for one site in a tiny corner of OK! It boggles the mind! Not only do we have 1,328 other Superfund sites in the US (as of Aug 2022), but there are countless others that haven’t risen to the level of extreme harm, and many companies continue to pollute without consequences. This is the “death by a thousand cuts” legacy we’re inflicting on the environment. Hats off to those who bring their box of band-aids. It makes a difference.

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, have a comment about my column, or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned.
[email protected]

Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest County News Journal 02-15-2023. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year and a quarter.

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