MIAMI – The after-effects of the long-ago mining in the Tar Creek Superfund area continues to expose residents to health risks. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the request of the Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency offered a public meeting last week in Miami to present and collect information in an effort to gather input for Risk Assessment Guidance for Superfund (RAGS).
The LEAD Agency is a nonprofit organization that promotes awareness of health and environmental issues related to the Tar Creek Superfund site.
“The deadline for comment has now changed to Jan. 17, but we didn’t know, and so we have an opportunity to say something, to give input. This is a window of opportunity to give some feedback, ” LEAD’s Executive Director Rebecca Jim said. “The answers EPA gets will determine how the clean up is done.”
EPA's contracted Skeo representative Terrie Boguski explained this effort only targets Operable Unit 5 (OU5), which involves study of the food resources, sediments and surface water in perennially flowing creeks, streams, and rivers within the Oklahoma portion of the Tri-State Mining District.
Skeo is an environmental consulting firm headquartered in Virginia offering technical and policy expertise on Superfund sites to help residents and stakeholders better understand the science, regulations, and policies involved.
Janetta Coats, EPA’s Community Involvement Coordinator, was also at the meeting to answer certain questions.
“The efforts that Skeo is making is an opportunity that EPA headquarters have for all communities whenever there’s technical information to be shared with the community, we have this tool in place to help the community understand the technical aspects of what’s going on at the site,” Coates said. “It’s not a formal comment period.”
The meeting at the LEAD Agency’s headquarters drew an attendance of about 20 people interested in learning more.
Boguski specified at the meeting the affected waters of OU5 are listed by EPA as Elm Creek, Tar Creek including Lytle Creek, the Neosho River, Beaver Creek, Lost Creek, Lower Spring River or a portion of Spring River downstream of Empire Lake in Kansas and ending at the headwaters of Grand Lake.
The EPA is working to determine the Human Health Risk Assessment for the Tar Creek Superfund OU5 which is a component of the remedial investigation and calculations used to support decision making in setting site-specific cleanup to help protect human health threatened by mining contaminants such as lead.
The EPA uses chronic daily intake numbers on some human consumable aquatic plants, animals and fishes from these waters, exposures and contact with mine discharge water in OU5 to calculate the risks and determine the impacts. The EPA uses separate calculations and numbers for the general public and Native American tribal members based on cultural assumptions.
“These are the very best estimates based on available data,” Boguski said. “This is a component of the remedial investigation that’s ongoing right now. The EPA has been doing data collection to fill in data gaps. This assessment is done to determine what the human health risk is from the contaminants from this site, it’s a numerical calculation which supports the decision making and helps the EPA determine what their cleanup level should be at the site, so the results are important.”
EPA's food source focus is on fish, shellfish, turtles and frogs, aquatic mammals such as raccoon, beaver, mink, muskrat and otter and aquatic plants such as Arrowhead Root and Duckweed.
Contact with contaminated water and sediment, and ingestion of the water as drinking water is also under consideration such as wading or swimming in the waters or sweat lodge uses.
To further develop the RAGS, the EPA will receive and consider input from residents in the OU5 to create more accurate assessments to use.
All area residents are encouraged to provide input to the EPA. Boguski told those in attendance providing very specific details is important in comments submitted.
“The more detail you can provide the better it can be turned into a numerical number that can go into those calculations,” she said. “More detail is more useful.”
Jim asked Boguski if because of local residents’ knowledge that some creeks in Ottawa County are contaminated, they aren’t fishing those creeks, and therefore the comments and reports would not reflect the data needed to clean up those creeks.
“We want to eat that fish, and we haven’t been able to eat that fish before, and so that’s the quandary,” Jim said.
Boguski said comments should include both the fish consumed, and the desire to fish impacted creeks and the amounts of fish residents predict they would eat from the waterways if they were not contaminated.
Several others in attendance expressed concern that the EPA’s assumption calculation data does not accurately reflect the local and cultural impacts on consumption of these food sources and leaves other important data out of their study. One example given was the large number of residents who hunt and fish in the OU5 area.
“We’re looking at how do we make the best assumption for people who live in this site,” Boguski said. “So, that’s why we’re here asking for your opinion, and these are some of the questions that it would be helpful to have input from residents on.”
One attendee asked if the study considers that water pumped from these waterways is also used for agricultural uses and irrigation and if it includes the consumption of these crops and foods.
“I think that’s something the EPA would like to know,” Boguski said.
A student attending the meeting asked why there are not more warnings at Grand Lake about fish consumption when many of the creeks and the rivers listed are tributaries to the lake.
Jim said it was unclear where the OU5 study ended at the Twin Bridges area, which is heavily fished.
Grand Lake may be part of another operable unit area but is not included in this study, according to Boguski.
Boguski said the EPA needs this input from locals on the amount and frequency of fish, plants, and animals consumed from site-impacted waters, and the number of days per year locals swim or wade in the rivers and creeks in the affected site. The EPA is also taking information on contact with mine discharge water.
The RAGS tables show exposure pathways and assumptions about behaviors leading to exposure for both the general public and Native Americans in OU5.
Overall exposure to mining contaminates to area residents from all sources should also be considered when calculating human health risk, according to Jim.
Jim said local comment and input is the only way to get the cleanup the area needs.
“This is really the first time that citizens have had access,” Jim said.
The clock is ticking on the public's ability to provide comments on OU5 with the deadline for input fast approaching. Comments must be submitted by Jan. 17, 2018 and can be submitted directly to: Janetta Coats, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator, 214-665-7308, toll-free at 1-800-533-3508, or at coats.janetta @epa.gov
A guide to fish consumption for the Tar Creek Area including Grand Lake is available online at http://www.deq.state.ok.us/CSDnew/fish/PDFs/PDFs/TabLinks/TarCreekInformation/TarCreekFishConsumptionBooklet.pdf.
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.