Three-year, $17 million, Tar Creek Superfund project underway.

COMMERCE – The landscape is slowly changing. An extraordinary 700,000 tons of chat, mine and mill waste, covering about 200 acres, will be remediated in the next phase of cleanup of the Tar Creek Superfund Site, costing $17 million.

Cleanup is now underway at the Elm Creek Unrestricted Tier 1 Project within the Tar Creek Superfund Site about a mile north of Commerce. The Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, working under an intergovernmental agreement with the State of Oklahoma, has started work on the site.

The work of the Tier 1 Project cleanup phase includes the excavation and offsite disposal of approximately 700,000 tons of chat and other mine and mill waste, the removal of contaminated soil, and involves institutional controls, such as deed notices, which will help ensure the appropriate reuse of the site, according to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ), one of the cleanup oversight agencies.

The Tier 1 Project covers about 200 acres in the Tar Creek Superfund site, a part of the Tri-State Mining District, a result of the lead and zinc mining and milling in huge volumes in the area from about 1900 to the 1960’s.

“It's really a good relationship. It's not only good for the Tribe, it's good for the community,” Quapaw Tribe Chairman John Berrey said of the project. “It creates jobs. It makes Ottawa County a cleaner place, so from our perspective, it's just all good. We have a great relationship with the Department of Environmental Quality and also with Regent Six of the greater EPA that we're very proud of.”

The project is being funded through a grant from the EPA to ODEQ and is expected to cost around $17 million and take three years to complete, according to the Tar Creek Superfund Elm Creek Unrestricted Tier 1 Project, ODEQ Project Manager, Zach Paden.

“This is funded under the Superfund program, and that means that 90 percent of the cost is funded by the Federal Government and 10 percent of the costs of State projects are funded by State Government,” Paden said.

According to ODEQ, the cleanup work on the site will continue into 2019. Removal of mining waste materials is part of the non-residential cleanup at the Tar Creek Superfund Site. These materials contain lead, cadmium and zinc concentrations above the remedial action goals established to be protective of human health and the ecological environment.

The mill tailings, or chat, primarily consist of fine gravel-sized and coarse sand-sized rock fragments. After the excavated rock was processed and the metal ore extracted in the mining process, the chat that remained was deposited into piles that were up to 200 feet in height. An inventory conducted in 2005, as part of the remedial investigation for Operable Unit (OU4), identified 83 chat piles occupying 767 acres, with an estimated volume of 31 million cubic yards (CY), and 243 chat bases (or former piles) occupying 2,079 acres, with an estimated volume of 6.7 million CY, according to a 2008 EPA report.

Cleanup Process

Paden described the process used in the project for mining waste disposal.

“The Central Mill Repository is just east of the intersection at East 40 Road and South 565 Road and will be used for the disposition of the mining waste in the project,” Paden said. “We use an excavator to load the chat, which is just mining waste, onto a truck and then haul it to that repository. The idea is to cap all the mining waste and put it back underground basically.”

Paden said the chat is transferred and then contained in the repository.

“The Central Mill Repository is a former mill pond that’s constructed out of clay, which is relatively impermeable material. We’re loading the mining waste onto that relatively impermeable layer, and then we’re going to be containing the chat with three feet of earthen material,” he explained.

Precautions are taken during the transport of the chat and mining waste to ensure the dust particles are contained as well as during the process, according to Paden.

“We use a water truck to prevent dust, as well as all the trucks are covered with tarps, so that keeps the materials contained,” he said. “To move the chat, you have to figure there’s 700,000 tons and each truck carries about 16 tons.”

The project is near rural residences and includes sampling, testing, and remediation of yards, if necessary.

“The primary expected use of these properties that we’re cleaning up is going to be pasture land,” Paden said.

Environmental and Economic Impact

The project not only affects environmental factors but also affects the local economy by providing jobs.

“We do expect a lot of local workers there including equipment operators, managers, mechanics, environmental specialists, surveyors, truck drivers, flagmen and other safety personnel,” Paden said.

According to the Quapaw Tribe’s figures, there are about 60 jobs directly related to Tar Creek cleanup activities. About half of those jobs are filled by Quapaw Tribe members.

“All of the grant money is spent locally, so it has a direct and ‘ripple effect’ impact on the Tri-State Region’s economy. Over the past few years, the Tribe contracted with about 20 truck drivers, but we have purchased those drivers’ trucks and hired the drivers full-time — that is included in the 60,” Quapaw Tribe spokesman Sean Harrison said.

The Quapaw Tribe completed a similar cleanup of the Catholic 40 Project under a first-ever, tribal-lead cooperative agreement with the EPA.

“Before the State of Oklahoma partnered with the Quapaw Tribe, the Quapaw Tribe had already done the Catholic 40 Project for the EPA. So, the Quapaw Tribe developed their capabilities, both construction capabilities, and environmental capabilities, as part of that job,” Paden said. “They previously had EPA grants, care, quality and monitoring grants, and so forth, but that’s how they got their start in the environmental field. They ended up cleaning up that property because it was a culturally sensitive property, they were and good fit for that. The quality of their work was good enough, and their local community involvement was good enough, that the State of Oklahoma entered into an inter-government agreement with the Quapaw Tribe to work on other parts of the Tar Creek Superfund.”

Paden said there are no cultural or historically significant properties within the Tier 1 project, but the project's site does border the old power plant used to pump water out of the mines to the northeast, while not including that particular property.

“We expect this project to be pretty similar to the Distal 13 Project, just south of this project. That was a restricted property that the Tribe has already completed,” Paden said.

Tribal Involvement and Local Pride

“The great thing is we're saving taxpayers money. (Like) the original Superfund contractor, we're doing the same work they were for about 65 percent of the cost just by managing the project better, and we're local,” Berrey said.

Berry credits U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt with the EPA's plan to cut taxpayer waste and work more efficiently in cleanup projects.

“It's exciting for us, and we really think that Scott Pruitt's doing a great job. We just want to continue to follow his lead and keep working hard and staying busy,” Berrey said.

According to Berrey, the Quapaw Tribe became involved in the cleanup work out of frustration with the way the cleanup process was being processed previously by other contractors.

“There was a lot of frustrations a few years ago. The tribal members that were getting the cleanup were frustrated, and we basically told the contractors they weren’t going to be allowed on Quapaw land anymore, and what that really did was just open the door of opportunity for us to work with the EPA and other stakeholders,” Berrey said. “It was a positive process, the community was safer, people were getting paid, and the money wasn’t leaving town.”

Local accountability and pride of accomplishment have been positive aspects of the Quapaw Tribe’s involvement in the cleanup work. The added bonus is some of the sites have now been remediated to actually produce on an economic level.

“Actually on some of the sites that we remediated we’ve grown soybeans and corn on some of those properties, so we’re not only taking them from being a wasteland, but we’re making these sites productive agricultural property, which is good for everybody,” Berrey said.

Cultural and Historical Preservation

At the Catholic 40 Project, the cleanup work uncovered tribally important and historic locations.

“On the Catholic 40, we were able to preserve the historical value it had and get it cleaned up. Now tribal members can go and visit the site. I’ve been talking to the Catholic Church in Miami and they have some historical documents and artifacts from the old Catholic school and I’m looking forward to meeting with them soon and kind of looking at what they’ve got and having a conversation with them about the history of the Catholic church with the Quapaws,” Berrey said. “So, it’s really opened a lot of doors for us. We see this as really good. It keeps everybody busy and keeps it local.”

Tar Creek Superfund Site

The Tar Creek Superfund Site, came to the attention of the EPA in 1979, was listed on the National Priorities List in 1983, covers 40 square miles, 25,600 acres and is located in Ottawa County, Oklahoma. The Site itself has no clearly defined boundaries but consists of areas within Ottawa County impacted by historical mining wastes. The Site is part of the larger Tri-State Mining District (TSMD) that includes historical lead and zinc mining areas in northeast Oklahoma, southeast Kansas, and southwest Missouri.

The Tar Creek Superfund Elm Creek Unrestricted Tier 1 Project, Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Project Manager, is Zach Paden who may be contacted at for more information at (405) 702 5166, according to DEQ.

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.