MIAMI – It's no surprise that lead contaminated chat and soil can be found throughout Ottawa County due to the magnitude of the historical mining here. What is surprising to many is the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality's (ODEQ ) mine waste cleanup efforts are still underway and available entirely free of charge to all Ottawa County residents.
ODEQ Environmental Programs Specialist Brian Stanila presented information at a public meeting last week about the ongoing ODEQ mine waste cleanup opportunities still offered. ODEQ took over the cleanup work from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from mid-2015.
“We wanted to let the community know we will begin working and that way the word's out,” Stanila told those gathered. “Our goal is to stay in the community as long as there's still an issue. Tar Creek is one of the largest most complex Superfund sites in the nation. There's actually five Operable Units for the site. Two for those focus on residential properties and what we call high access areas such as parks, school yards, churches, parking lots, or anywhere the community can get access to.”
Each Operable Unit (OU) serves to focus on specific areas of remediation work.
Stanila gave a brief history of the Tri-State Mining District's operation from 1850 to the 1960s. Ottawa County became the world's largest source of lead and zinc, employing 11,000 men in almost 250 mills. After 1950, many mines were shut down, largely because adverse environmental impacts on soil, groundwater, and air had been found. The Tar Creek Superfund site in Oklahoma, established in 1983 as a ground water project.
“As time went on it became clear that there were also issues in the cities, towns, and communities dealing with residential properties,” he said.
The OU2 Residential Yard Cleanup program began in 1997 under the direction of the EPA in efforts to remove soil and chat contaminated with lead, cadmium, and zinc above the remedial goal to reduce and eliminate exposure. Residential cleanup has continued since that time.
Lead found in the chat mine tailings affects both soil and water and was used as a fill material all across Ottawa County. The lead associated with the chat causes adverse health issues including neurological damage and learning disabilities in residents, especially children.
Since ODEQ took over for EPA, they have fielded over 100 calls and sampled 85 properties and of those identified 25 properties for cleanup and restoration. ODEQ consultants A&M Engineering have been performing the majority of the sampling for the last year and a half.
When testing, ODEQ uses a grid system on each property obtaining two five-point composite soil samples per grid, one at zero to six inches in depth and another from six to twelve inches.
“The goal is to determine from the samples if it's above or below our remedial goal,” Stanila said. “This is an entirely free service provided by the State of Oklahoma and EPA. It's a purely voluntary service – we can't go out and seek out properties. We can't make anyone have their properties sampled.”
EPA acceptable limits are set by Record of Decision (ROD) for all mine tailings (chat). If the testing reveals 500 mg/kg ROD of lead parts per million remedial action is taken.
“If it's above 500 parts per million, we're going to clean it up, and under we're not,” Stanila said. “If we see chat stacked up we do have the ability to simply remove that material.”
On average chat sampling of contaminated yards by ODEQ in Ottawa County has found between 900 to 1,100 mg/kg parts per million, according to Stanila.
“Sometimes we get higher than that, and sometimes we get lower than that,” he said. “Of the 85 we sampled, 25 tested positive for remediation, so the majority are sampling well below.”
ODEQ the Oklahoma Department of Health, and A&M Engineering representatives were on hand at the meeting to answer questions.
LEAD Agency executive director Rebecca Jim said EPA's ROD levels for lead might soon be changed setting new limits in response to the new standards set by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
“We'll have to figure out what to do as an agency when and if that happens,” Stanila said. “We may be going back and cleaning out properties we once said were clean if they (EPA) lowers that standard and adopts that standard.”
ODEQ offers two large sampling events in spring and fall to create a remediation schedule allowing most properties to be cleaned up in one large sweep.
Low bidder, Bingham Sand and Gravel of Baxter Springs, Kansas has been contracted for cleanup and transportation of the contaminated soil and chat to the 605 Road Repository or to chat processors who process and market the remediated chat. Their work is under the monitoring of ODEQ, according to Stanila.
Once the contaminated soil and chat are removed, yards will be remediated with clean backfill and sod, and drives backfilled with limestone as they are listed for remediation from August to December.
“We do have some flexibility if needed,” Stanila said.
Stanila said prior remediation problems during EPA cleanup efforts of drainage and other issues have been addressed by ODEQ.
“We're trying to do the best we can it ensure that we put the drainage back exactly as it was found,” he said. “ That's why we now do elevation surveys on property.”
Many county residents aren't aware the cleanup opportunity and efforts are ongoing, a misconception ODEQ wants to clear up.
“We've spent the last year kind of getting this program off the ground and starting this process. My anticipation is we're going to hopefully continue to build that reputation and knowledge in the community and have additional public meetings and awareness,” Stanila said. “And it's not just for Miami, it's for Afton, Commerce, Fairland - it's everywhere, and anyone in Ottawa County.”
For clarification, Stanila explained renters or lessees could request testing, but property owners ultimately must give ODEQ permission to test and remediate properties.
Signs of contamination to look for include chat, barren soil or areas where vegetation does not grow well, or spots of lighter colored soil, and demolition areas, according to Stanila.
“Those are the areas that would cause me concern,” he said. “My understanding is that all of the schools in Miami have been remediated. There are a few parks here and there that we're going to go back to and review; Lion Torbert Park and Riverview.”
Miami property owner Jill Micka, had her yard tested and remediated seven years ago by the EPA.
“I was working at The LEAD Agency and learning about how prevalent the danger of lead poisoning is in this area, and I suspected because our house was built in the 60s that chat had been used for fill. At that time it made sense, using available resources,” Micka said. “The other part of that is I wanted that piece of paper that says our house is lead-free if we were ever to sell.”
Once her yard was sampled and identified as lead contaminated, Micka says it was about a one week process to remediate and restore her property.
“The lead was not as widespread as we thought, but it was right off our front porch where chat was used as fill,” she said. “They scraped away the contaminated soil, and with that, you pretty much say goodbye to any landscaping, but it was worth it for us. I was really pleased because we had the choice of re-seeding or sod and we chose sod. They were so conscientious about their work, and I was surprised at how quickly it had been completed. Within a year you could not tell where the sod had been laid.”
Micka said the lead testing and cleanup have given her a peace of mind and she is hoping word spreads that testing and remediation are still ongoing.
“I wouldn't just encourage I beg others to have this sampling done,” Micka said. “I guess the concern that I have is I know people are tired of hearing this, there's a fatigue, but the fact of the matter is – it won't change. I want people to call.”
Micka has family members who have suffered and been affected by lead contamination.
“If one child is saved it's worth it,” Micka said.
More information about the Tar Creek Cleanup can be found at ODEQ's website at www.deq.state.ok.us/lpdnew/TarCreekindex.html
Ottawa County residents interested in property testing, or to find out if their property has been previously tested can contact the ODEQ hotline at 1-800-522-0206 or the Land Division at 405-702-5100.