Environmental Contamination and Genocide
Tar Creek Superfund Site

by Gerard Donnelly Smith

March 15, 2004   


Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Once, the Wyandotte, Seneca, Huron, Cherokee and hundreds of other First Nations lived East of the Mississippi in the fertile woodlands crisscrossed with streams, and dotted with lakes teaming with fish and wildlife. But along with the majority of coastal and woodlands aborigines, they were moved by Andrew Jackson to the Oklahoma Territory: a land supposedly barren. According to the Removal Act, these new lands would remain Indian "into perpetuity."

Unfortunately, minerals and oil were found in Oklahoma in 1859, with the first commercial well striking oil in 1897. Ironically the Cherokee and Choctaw discovered the oil. According to Muriel Wright, "Lewis Ross, a brother of Chief John Ross of the Cherokees, was manufacturing salt at the Grand Saline...Wishing to increase his output of salt, Ross sank a deep water well, and struck a vein of oil, which flowed, by estimate, about ten barrels a day for a year, until the pressure of the gas became exhausted and failed to support the volume of oil" (Chronicles of Oklahoma, 4.4, Dec. 1926). In 1884, both the Chocktaw and the Cherokee formed oil companies, but by 1888, due to inadequate financing, both ventures failed. During the development of these First Nation oil companies, the Department of the Interior, reinforced the rights of the Choctaw and Cherokee to negotiate leases.
The Cherokees have a fee simple title to their lands and they do not recognize the right of the Department to interfere in the management of their affairs with reference thereto....They (the Cherokees), are quite capable of determining, without the aid of the Interior Department or Congress, what is to their advantage or disadvantage and the government cannot interfere with their rightful use and occupation of their lands, which are as rightfully theirs as the public domain of the United States.
Yet these resources and the wealth they could produce were coveted by American businessmen who increased pressure on the Federal government to open these public lands to private enterprise. Election time draws near, so the prospect of an economic boom appeals to the incumbent president.

To reduce the Indian held land, especially that rich in minerals, the federal government took advantage of the Dawes Act of 1887 and subsequent Allotment Acts "to absorb the Indian into the general public and to reduce Indian lands and government support." In order to access the minerals on lands held by individual Indians, the Allotment Acts were amended in 1891, so that leasing of Indian land would be legal:
That whenever it shall be made to appear to the Secretary of the Interior that, by reason of age or other disability, any allottee under the provisions of said act, or any other act or treaty can not personally and with benefit to himself occupy or improve his allotment or any part thereof the same may be leased upon such terms and conditions as shall be proscribed by such Secretary, for a term not exceeding three years for farming or grazing, ten years for mining purposes: Provided, That where lands are occupied by Indians who have bought and paid for the same, and which lands, are not needed for farming or agricultural purposes, and are not desired for individual allotments, the same may he hmml (sic) by leased by authority of the Council speaking for such Indians, for a period not to exceed five years for grazing, or ten years for mining purposes in such quantities and upon such terms and conditions as the agent in charge of such reservation may recommend, subject to the approval of the Secretary of the Interior.
Since then, the mines leased to private corporation through the Secretary of the Interior have placed upon American aboriginal peoples conditions that can lead to their physical destruction. According to the UN Convention on Genocide, inflicted conditions that lead to a people's physical destruction, in whole or in part, shall constitute genocide: a crime against humanity. Moreover, the contamination from these mines also causes "serious mental and bodily harm" and "prevent births."

One such mining area included the tri-states region of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, rich in zinc and lead. Mining operations started in this region in the early 1900s, a region above the Boone Formation, an acquirer which provides drinking water for current residents. Pumping of contaminated water into holding ponds continued during the mines' operations until 1968; by 1979 water levels were so high that the contaminated water (containing sulfides, cadmium, arsenic metals) spilled into the waterways, contaminating not only the ground, but the also leaching heavy metals into the acquirer. According to the Sierra Club:
As the mines grew larger during the 20th century, they drew more water from the two aquifers that sit just below the floor of the mine. Contact with the minerals made the water so acidic that it ate through the nails in the miners' boots. The mining companies installed pumps to prevent flooding and discharged the water into Tar Creek. When the orange-colored water reached the creek, fish died and beavers and muskrats ran for safer habitats....When the mining companies left, they turned off the pumps, and the orange, acidic water stopped flowing into Tar Creek, allowing wildlife to once again flourish there. But not for long. With the pumps no longer keeping the water out of the mine chambers, the rooms began to fill with water. Due to chemical reactions, a "cistern of acid" was created below Ottawa County. The U.S. Geological Survey in 1978 determined that the mines held more than 10,753,097,000 gallons of acidic water...They warned that the mines would eventually overflow....Less than a year later, the mines did indeed overflow from the various drill holes and mine shafts in the region. The discharge found its way back to Tar Creek, killing fish, adding orange sludge....Fish downstream of Tar Creek in Grand Lake of the Cherokees have tested positive for high concentrations of cadmium. Nearly all of the area wells are contaminated-the water smells metallic, tastes like rust, and stains residents' clothes and sinks, so few people drink it. A health commission warning has only confirmed what locals already intuited: drinking contaminated well water could burn intestinal membranes and result in cadmium and lead poisoning.
The EPA, in an April 2000 report, warns:
In addition, approximately 50 million tons of waste (i.e., mine tailings) leftover from the mining operations are present at the Site. These mine tailings deposited in hundreds of piles and ponds at the Site contain lead and other heavy metals. Some of the tailings piles approach 200 feet in height. Residential communities are located among the tailings piles. The tailings have been widely used locally as gravel for driveways and roads. Approximately 25 percent of the children living on the Site have elevated blood lead concentration levels, compared to a state wide average of 2 percent. Approximately 1,600 residential yards with unsafe concentration levels of lead have been identified. Five public water supply wells on the Site are impacted by acid mine water. These wells fail to meet secondary drinking water standards. The Site landscape is significantly scarred and disrupted by the past mining activities. In addition to Tar Creek, other Site-area creeks are contaminated with acid mine water that is draining from the under ground mines, and with leachate and runoff from the large deposits of tailings. Traffic-generated dust from the tailings also poses problems.
Oklahoma's Tar Creek Superfund Site contains high levels of lead which can adversely affect the emotional and intellectual development of children. Lead poisoning adversely effects the blood, the nervous and the immune systems. Moreover, pregnant women exposed to lead and zinc run a higher risk of miscarriage, and their infants suffer higher rates of health problems. All of these problems are directly related to lead and zinc contamination of the soil and the water caused by mining.

Though the EPA assessed the risk as low to the general population, the agency did not take into consideration the cultural traditions of the NA people who are more likely to gather herbs for medicine, consume more fish, and gather berries along Tar Creek. The plants and the fish will contain higher levels of lead and other contaminants. Even though only 17% of the residents near Tar Creek are NA, they are at a higher risk level because of their traditional lifestyles.

Indeed, most of the site was on Indian land controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and 45% of the nation's zinc and lead during WWII came from this site. The damage to the environment is irreversible: "at least 1,300 mine shafts at the Site, many of which remain open. There are at least 100,000 boreholes at the Site," each of which contain contaminated water that continues to discharge during floods. Unfortunately the Tar Creek area is prone to flooding. In addition, the millions of tons of heavy metal tailings leach into the ground water during the floods. According to the `Tar Creek Restoration Act' introduced in the House of Representatives on May 15, 2003, "Because of its many unique environmental problems, the Site can never be made safe for human habitation."

Because of these continuing hazards the Tar Creek Restoration Act, rather than restore the land, will use the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 to "remove" residents from the 17 square miles of contaminated land designated as the superfund site. Unfortunately, the original mining operations covered 40 square miles, and the Ottawa County site represents only the Oklahoma part of the Tri-State Mining District of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri.

The deadly chat (contaminated tailings) have been used for backfill in yards, for house foundations, and for driveways. The EPA notes that even thought chat contains lead, dangerous to children and adults, when processed it can be safely used for industrial purposes. The Quapaw Tribe, which owns most of the Tar Creek Site, has recently been allowed to remove the contaminated chat on 107 Indian-owned properties. Even with the chat removed, the soil, as well as the water, will still be contaminated with toxic metals.

Because the toxic waste may bring about the "physical destruction" not only of the NA population, but also of all residents, no expense should be spared in making restitution. The Federal Government is ultimately responsible for this tragedy, and should provide the affected landowners, especially the native peoples, with land of equal value: land that is uncontaminated, land where the water is pure, land not tainted orange from heavy metals. Unless, the Federal Government makes every effort to protect the lives of the affected "ethnic" groups, it is complicit in genocide, willfully and blindly negligent in its duty under international law.

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Gerard Donnelly Smith, a poet and musician, teaches creative writing, literature and composition at Clark College in Vancouver WA. CERRO de la ESTRELLA (Logan Elm Press, 1992) was chosen for The Governor's Award for the Arts in Ohio, 1992. Excerpts from THE AMERICAN CORPSE (10 poems) were published in Apex of the M in 1995. He is the current director of the Columbia Writers Series, an Honorary Board Member of The Mountain Writers Series, and co-advisor of the Native American Student Council at Clark College. He has also organized readings for Poets Against the War.

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Published March 15, 2004
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