MIAMI — The Tar Creek conference held annually in Miami to bring awareness to the devastating consequences of mining activities in this part of the country looked a little different this year, as it was held virtually online due to COVID-19, but that did nothing to take away from its importance or success, according to the local organizers at the Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency.

The LEAD Agency and the Western Mining Action Network (WMAN) joined forces to present two firsts this year — their first joint conference and first virtual conference. Even in a time of uncertainty, they still wanted to continue doing the work of bringing together scientists, activists, and the public so everyone can learn and grow together as they work to protect communities and the environment.

During the virtual conference, attendees explored the intersection of mining, environmentalism, health, and the coronavirus pandemic, taking into consideration the pernicious influence of systemic racism and how it affects how decisions are made within, among, and for mining communities nationwide.

“For 21 years there has been a Tar Creek Conference and the LEAD Agency and all the various partners have pulled our resources together and held the gathering for our community to learn from and share with regulators, stakeholders, activists, scientists and youth about our environmental issues and a bit of the wider world’s,” said Rebecca Jim, LEAD Agency executive director and an advocate with decades of experience, who is also known as the “Tar Creekkeeper.”

“This year was different. As fall approached, we at the LEAD Agency knew it was not in our best interest to host an event with that many people in one place during this pandemic. And, unfortunately, this was the year we had planned to broaden our platform and partner with WMAN, an organization with more than 300 entities from racially and economically diverse communities. WMAN provides opportunities for locally-based citizen groups in the US and Canada to educate themselves, influence decision making, and cooperate to create positive social change that goes beyond the boundaries of any one location or issue. We and WMAN both bypassed our regular conferences to blend our themes and efforts in a new way,” Jim said.

Neither organization even knew that they had the capacity to do a “virtual” version of their conferences, but approximately one month ago they decided to make an effort to pull the varied parties together and give it a go, according to Jim.

“The joint virtual conference filled a gap we had in meeting, with the gaping wounds we learned lie throughout Canada, the US, Central and South America, with the same companies raping lands and poisoning waters using the very techniques we know fail to leave communities whole when the mining ceases and the companies leave,” Jim said.

Earl Hatley with the LEAD Agency, and also known as the Grand Riverkeeper, said, “I think the conference was very successful and I am really proud of the LEAD Agency for our role. We hosted the conference electronically, which was very empowering for our staff. We learned a lot and developed some exciting capabilities and capacities by being able to be the host this conference.

“It was empowering for the agency board as well, to be able to play leadership roles, because we are bringing in an international organization, WMAN, to partner with on the conference. This was supposed to be their biannual conference as well as our annual one. The LEAD Agency was the local host and we had a virtual tour of Tar Creek the first day,” Hatley said.

The virtual tour of the Tar Creek Superfund site included a 40-square-mile epicenter of the county-wide site in Ottawa County. Once the largest lead and zinc mine in the world, the toxic legacy of this mining activity impacts eight sovereign Indigenous nations. The epicenter, known as the Picher Mining District, extends from the town of Commerce north to Picher and the Kansas state line.

Viewers saw the environmental destruction caused by one million gallons of acid mine water flowing into the Tar Creek watershed every day. They saw tailings piles up to 200 feet tall and a toxic moonscape that used to be a lush tall grass prairie.

They also witnessed the remediation efforts of the Quapaw Nation, whose lands are most impacted by this historical mining, and who are the first Tribe in the nation to receive a primary contract for remediation of a superfund site.

“The WMAN’s biannual conference was going to feature Tar Creek as a terrible mining problem unique in the country but, because of COVID-19, we had to do the two conferences as one virtual conference and as a place holder for both conferences for next year. But WMAN will be coming to Miami next year for a face-to-face conference, provided it is safe by then,” Hatley said.

The LEAD Agency volunteered to be this year’s technical host and produced the conference for an international audience online.

“Some of our people were also webinar hosts, so that was really very empowering for a small, grassroots organization like the LEAD Agency. It was quite a feat accomplished in a short time and without very many glitches, and those were minor,” Hatley said.

The panels presented during the conference were exceptional and the panel experts gave some very interesting presentations, Hatley added.

“The quality of the webinars was as good as any I have seen, and I have been to several since March,” he said. “Ours would stand up to any of them and I am very proud of that. We did really well. Internationally speaking, in terms of mining and these cleanup sites around North America, I think the webinars were spot on and extremely informative.”

If readers would like to go online and view day two of the conference, which includes a presentation on the Pensacola Dam and the flooding issues, they will get some idea about where the LEAD Agency is taking all this, Hatley continued.

“It’s still coming up in our future. We still haven’t heard from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as to their response to our comments, or the Tribal and city comments. But I think our comments were all so good that they are having to go back to the drawing board. The next step will be deciding how we will respond back to them. We need to hold them accountable to get it done right,” Hatley said.

“This year’s conference brought together mining activists, experts, and indigenous people from across North America,” said Martin Lively of the LEAD Agency.

Lively who did most of the technical work for the conference, according to Jim.

“We heard the story of Tar Creek told alongside the struggles and experiences of other mining communities, reminding us that Tar Creek is not alone,” Lively said. “We often share similar challenges, including the harsh reality that too often Native people bear not only a disproportionate share of the harms caused by mining, but they also suffer cultural losses not experienced by non-Native residents. This conference forces us to consider the challenges and inequities mining creates, but it also provides reason for hope.”

Those participating learned about tools used to improve cleanups at other mining sites that may help improve cleanup at Tar Creek, and saw examples of communities and activists working together to improve health and safety within their communities.

All the conference videos can be found on the LEAD Agency’s Facebook page at

https://www.facebook.com/leadagencyinc

“More than ever we will continue our mantra: No More Tar Creeks. These industrial extraction procedures that are made to make money break promises and leave utter messes when they leave. They all leave disasters behind for communities, states, and federal governments to deal with or endure,” Jim said.

The overwhelming message, Jim added, is that we are not alone. “These same companies are messing with indigenous people and poor communities from Canada all the way through South America and have been at it since these lands were ‘discovered’ 500 years ago. This is what they do. It just hit how the struggle to extract our resources endures through the generations. “

All of it brought Jim to tears, she said, and again even now. “I would just like to keep it all in the ground; use what is already out until we are advanced enough as a people to not need these materials anymore.”

The LEAD Agency is a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to educating the public about environmental concerns in northeast Oklahoma; taking action to counter environmental hazards threatening residents, and partnering with other environmental organizations in Oklahoma and across the nation.

They are located at 223 A Street SE in Miami. For more information, call 918-542-9399 or e-mail leadagency@att.net