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Superfund Sites in Picher Oklahoma Essay

Superfund Sites in Picher Oklahoma


       The Tar Creek superfund site which is also known as Picher lead and zinc mining district is found in the far northeastern part of Oklahoma near its border with Kansas. The site was part of the Tri-state mining district that included areas of Missouri and Kansas and was one of the largest lead and zinc mining areas in the world. The Tar Creek site is considered to be one of the largest superfund site in America covering a geographic area of about 50 square miles and costs a total remediation fee of about 540 million dollars to 61 billion dollars. Tar Creek is a small stream that is characterized by still pools and is the major drainage system for the in the Picher field area, and it flows to the south passing between the towns of Picher and Cardin. Despite efforts that were put to prevent further contamination, there was minimal improvement in the surface water quality. The measures taken to divert the water were seen to be only partially effective (State Oklahoma report). As part of action to remedy the situation, eighty-three wells abandoned wells were refilled, dikes were constructed to divert surface water around collapsed mine shafts and the mines. The first operable unit cost ten million dollars.

       The superfund program by the Environmental protection Agency has been highly criticized and praised over the years since the beginning of its implementation. There are some superfund sites that were cleaned successfully and reclaimed, however, others like the Tar Creek superfund site, which has been listed in the National Priorities List for several years. The Tar Creek has witnessed minimal notable improvement since the cleanup efforts began. The purpose of this research document is to investigate the difference between sites that have been cleaned and reclaimed successfully and those that have not seen any meaningful change. The paper will also determine the factors that influence speed and ease of the cleanup, suggest changes that can be made to the current process of superfund cleanup that will be beneficial to all sites.

Overview and Analysis of Risks Involved

       Tar creek is a region that is found at the northwest of Oklahoma near the town of Picher and is part of land segments in the southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri. It totals about 1,200 acres and 40 square miles in size. The area was part of the Tri-state Mining District between 1900 to late 1960s. Excessive mining carried out in the area produced pollutants of lead, zinc and cadmium that resulted in highly acidic water flowing into ponds and streams on the surface while some seeped into ground water. Other specific affected towns apart from Picher include Miami, Hockerville, Cardin, and Quapaw.

       The problems found in Tar creek site, and Picher have historical beginnings in long time mining of zinc and lead in the area. Mining in the area began in 1900 and went on through to the late 1970s. The process of mining lead and zinc creates large quantities of unused mining materials which pile up above the ground and are always known as “chat” piles. These chat piles can be quite huge and may resemble hills. Over time, mining companies disposed of the chat by creating large piles above the ground and tailing ponds or dumping it into flotation. Some chat piles could rise as high as 200 feet, and all of it had increased level of lead and other heavy metals.

       It is approximated that about 1.7 million tons of led was generated from the mining of about 181 million tons of lead deposits, giving rise to a significant amount of lead contaminated waste. It was posited that at during the time of clean up, there were thousands of acres (Fifty square miles or two thousand nine hundred) and more than 265 million tons of chats that are lead contaminated (Hu, Shine and Wright, 2007).

       The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey estimate that Tar Creek has 75 million tons of chat piles. The Environmental Protection Agency listed Tar Creek on the National Priorities List in 1983.This made it subject to Comprehensive Environmental Compensation, Response, and Liability Act. Environmental Protection Agency found that tailings were found all over residential properties in the Tar Creek, with the foundation of business units and homes built on chat. Apart from that, another by-product arising from the mining operation is highly acidic mine water. The zinc and lead mines were that abandoned began to fill with surface runoff. During the late 1970s, the drainage of the acid mines containing heavy metals started to discharge into Tar Creek from boreholes, natural springs and open mine shafts.

       Several public health problems are presented by the superfund site that include mine shaft hazards, acid mine drainage, poor air quality due to dust laden with lead. Others include soil contamination linked to chat piles and mine waste and exposure of young children and vulnerable population to contaminated materials. More health risks are attributed to human consumption of wild food and fish from the Tar Creek superfund site and including the Spring River and Neosho river watershed.

       All these environmental and human health problems are still being examined by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Human Health Services and other local state agencies. In 2003, several federal agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency, U. S. Army Corps, and the Department of Interior) signed a memorandum of understanding facilitating cooperation of the agencies to achieve a holistic approach to the risk posed from the Tar Creek superfund site. Federal, private and state efforts are implemented and coordinated by the Department of Environmental Quality in Oklahoma to ensure that a comprehensive solution to the health and environmental problems is achieved in the area. Several tribal authorities are conducting additional solutions to restore their environment and protect the health of community members.

Possible Solutions to the Problem

       Superfund is currently not set up to handle complex and large areas like Tar Creek. Superfund is focused on site remediation as a permanent solution to the problem. However, in situations such as Tar Creek it is not easy to achieve a permanent solution within a short time. Therefore, the residents of this area and the surrounding areas are exposed to contaminants for a substantial period, which increases risk human health effect on the environment.

       Solving this problem requires separate cleanup process are included where the complexity, size or government restrictions in the area will lead to prolonged cleanup time or significant delays. For superfund sites like Tar Creek, two cleanup approaches should be used. The first approach should aim at getting a permanent solution, as is the current goal of the superfund process. The second approach should be a temporary solution which will minimize exposure of people, environment and wildlife to the contamination while a permanent solution is lookedfor. An example of this is covering contaminated soil using a capping system (United States Environmental Protection Agency).

       There are various measures that can be implemented at the Tar Creek superfund site that can provide immediate and significant benefits. The first action should be extensive community education program. The Environmental Protection Agency should take measures to inform the community about the dangers and hazards that are linked to the pollution and inform them of measures they can take to protect their health. People need to be informed of the importance of regular hand washing. Measures should be put in place to inform residents of the risks that can result from playing on the piles of chat and the area creeks. Warning signs and fences to prevent people from entering the polluted areas should be erected. The education program can help to decrease the blood lead level of people living in the area (United States Environmental Protection Agency). Public education programs are beneficial; however, it is not a requirement for superfund sites. It is up to those charged with overseeing the site to initiate such programs. Individuals living in the areas that are polluted deserve the right to know the nature of pollution they are exposed to and the measures they can implement to protect themselves. Immediately a problem is identified, education and public awareness programs should begin. Public education programs should begin as soon as the site is listed in the National priority list.

       Another measure that can be beneficial at the Tar Creek is the removal of chat from residential properties. Chat coverings such as roads, driveways and playground surfaces should be removed and replaced. Apart from this, some of the chat in the chat piles can be used as an aggregate for asphalt, reducing the volume of chat over a number of years. Asphalt made with the chat can be used to plug mine shafts and pave roads while containing the heavy lead and zinc metals and decreasing their mobility. Removal of chat can result in a reduced blood lead level in the people living in the area. The removal process is projected to have more positive outcomes as progress continues. For example, piles of chat shrink exposure of community members to dust as a result of wind will reduce. In addition to that, contamination of ground water by rainwater runoff will reduce as the chat piles shrinks.

       The surface water quality should be improved through construction of passive treatment projects while harnessing the filtration capability of the surrounding ecosystem. To reduce exposure to lead dust, the amount of chat used in asphalt mixes needs to be increased, chat roads should be paved and chat piles and millponds near residential areas should be re-navigated. In addition to this, the state can alleviate mine hazards by locating and mapping vent holes and mine shafts and filling them with chat. The other method is to reclaim the land by removing the chat, re-vegetating and re-contouring the land.

       In addition to this, state governments can easily manage awareness and education programs, without interrupting the federal cleanup work. If the area is very complex, local governments, and the state can focus on smaller or projects that are less complex like the chat removal. At the same time, federal resources should be used on the most complex areas of the cleanup exercise. Federal agencies have a tendency to control the state and local governments rather than working together with them. Measures should be added to the current superfund program to enable greater state and local government participation. More funds and high awareness could quicken the cleanup process.

       The superfund process should change the way threats to the environment and health are viewed. In general, measures should be taken the moment an imminent threat to human health and the environment has been identified. (US EPA). In Tar Creek exposure over a day or several days will not have any notable impact on a person’s health. However, over a period of years, exposure to contaminants in the area may affect the reproductive, cardiovascular, and central nervous system for people who are exposed. It can also cause hyperactivity and retardation in young children (Church). The people residing in Tar Creek area had been exposed to contaminants for several years, their health was seriously at risk due to the chronic threat affecting the people for over fifty tears (Brock et al., 1995).

       To reduce the threat to human health due to exposure contaminated materials, a new classification system should be introduced to the superfund process. Conditions that that would create a significant threat to human health as a result of repeated exposure can be classified as a chronic threat. A timeline can be established, based on the nature of the contaminant, the duration of time over which the environment and the public had were exposed, and the extent of contamination. This timeline will determine the acceptable period to improve the situation. If significant improvement is not realized within the period, the situation should be classified as an immediate threat.


       Even though the superfund process has been successful in many cases, it can be improved upon. Measures that include mandatory education programs, testing for cross-contamination at the beginning of the site investigation, implementation of temporary remedies for particularly complex or large cleanup sites can be used to encourage greater state intervention. Addressing chronic threats has not improved substantially over time and is a measure that should be taken to improve the current cleanup processes. However, these means are not the only means for improving effectiveness and efficiency of the Superfund process.

       Superfund should be treated as work in progress. The process should be reviewed for problems and flaws on a continuous basis. In addition, unsuccessful and successful sites should be reviewed for particular activities that led to their success or failure. Information that is acquired from these reviews should be used to come up with new procedures and policies that can be added to the existing superfund process. The Superfund process can never be perfect, but continuous monitoring and revision of the process will help make the system very efficient.


Brock, F. V., K. C. Crawford, R. L. Elliott, G. W. Cuperus, S. J. Stadler, H. L. Johnson, and M. D. Eilts, (1995): The Oklahoma Mesonet: A Technical Overview. J. Atmos. and Oceanic Techno. 12, 5-19.

Church, Thomas W., and Robert T. Nakamura (1993).Cleaning Up the Mess: Implementation Strategies in Superfund.Washington D.C. The Brookings Institution.

Oklahoma State Department of Health. Retrieved December 2014 from:http://www.health.state.ok.us/PROGRAM/envhlth/sites/ottawa.html>.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Ohio River Park: Current Site Information.Retrieved on December 2014 from: http://www.epa.gov/reg3hwmd/npl/PAD980508816.htm.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. The Superfund Program, Ten Years of Progress.EPA/540/8-91/003. December 2014.

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