If you head north on Route 66, past Kay’s Kut & Kurl, the Okie Burger drive-in and the house where Mickey Mantle grew up, you come to a silvery, man-made mountain range. These are metal mountains, massive piles of sand mixed with arsenic, lead, cadmium and manganese tailings–toxic leftovers from more than 300 mines that once made this northeast corner of Oklahoma a series of boomtowns.
From the turn of the century through the 1960s, miners dug in this area for lead, zinc and other raw materials, mostly used to make munitions for the military. When Eagle-Picher and most of the other mining companies shut down their sites by the mid-1970s, they didn’t bother to clean up the toxic heaps, called chat. They abandoned the chat piles, some of which rose about 200 feet high and were as wide as two city blocks. The chat blew around Ottawa County, coating houses and yards with poisonous dust and saturating the air near schools and stores. Oblivious to any danger, parents helped themselves to the chat to fill sandboxes, and kids raced dirt bikes over the peaks.
The mining companies also neglected to seal most of the mine shafts. Over the next few years the shafts slowly filled with polluted, acidic water, which by 1979 burst into nearby Tar Creek, dyeing it Day-Glo orange and killing fish and other aquatic life. During frequent floods, the waters of Tar Creek would contaminate nearby neighborhoods, staining sidewalks and stones and leaving the soil unsafe for growing food–a particular problem for members of the Quapaw Indian Nation and other tribes accustomed to living off the land.
The sickly-looking river drew the attention of the EPA, which in 1983 designated Tar Creek an early and important target of Superfund, the landmark program enacted by Congress in 1980 to clean up the nation’s worst toxic waste sites. But the EPA’s roughly $120 million effort to remediate Tar Creek failed because of poor planning and complications from the underground network of tunnels and mines, and so people in the nearby towns of Picher, Cardin and Hockerville, as well as some farther away in Miami and Commerce and across the state line into Kansas, continued to be exposed.
In 1994 Rebecca Jim, a member of the Cherokee Nation who worked as a school counselor in Miami, read about the dangers of exposure to lead. She insisted that the government test some of the schoolchildren. The results were shocking: more than 43 percent of the kids had levels considered unsafe, capable of diminishing intelligence and causing other behavioral and physical problems. Jim was a driving force behind a massive education campaign that warned residents not to play in the chat, fish in the orange creek or eat food grown locally. Ten years later, the lead levels were much improved.
But that didn’t mean the people were safe. Harvard public health professor David Bellinger and his colleagues found that children who had the highest levels of a mixture of arsenic and manganese, as measured in their hair, did worse on tests measuring verbal skills and verbal memory than kids who were less contaminated. These results led the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences to sponsor a second study by Bellinger, measuring more contaminants in the blood of Tar Creek community children and testing, among other things, whether exposure to chat has impaired their ability to think.