Contaminated Oklahoma Site Highlights Superfund Problems

The Superfund site at the former Tar Creek mine, located near the rural northeast Oklahoma communities of Cardin, Picher, and Hockerville, is a sobering demonstration of the U.S. government’s limited ability to clean up industrial pollution. The mine, which produced lead ore to make the bullets fired in two world wars, left behind huge caverns beneath the landscape and mountainous piles of lead waste — or “chat” — on top of it. Until 1994, the chat was thought to have some economic value and to be entirely safe: Children sledded down the piles and played in sandboxes full of chat. Extensive tests in 1997 found unsafe levels of lead in paint, soil, dust, and the blood of the communities’ children. Though the levels were lower when tested in 2000, for which the U.S. EPA takes credit, they remain high despite millions of dollars funneled into cleanup, leading some residents and political officials to conclude that the only answer is government-funded relocation — that the site, in effect, cannot be cleaned. Meanwhile, nobody knows what to do with the mine waste, and massive legal battles are breaking out over the relocation, the health problems, ownership of the chat, and the Superfund program itself, which never anticipated, says the EPA’s Thomas Dunne, “facing these multi-hundred-million-dollar problems.”