On Wednesday Nov. 17, the film Tar Creek was screened in Cole Cinema; it told the story of a Superfund site in Picher, Oklahoma.
The site is an environmental disaster and millions of dollars of federal money have been spent to attempt to clean up the huge amounts of toxic waste left over from the lead and zinc mines there.
Kate Chandler, Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of Environmental Studies, introduced the film. She said that there is the “hope [that] we all walk away with a more informed understanding about [Superfund sites].”
There are three Superfund sites in St. Mary’s county; Chandler said, “we are not immune to this…these are places we’re not even aware of…ignorance is not bliss.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website, Superfund is “the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites.”
The EPA works to clean up and protect the environment and public from the dangers of these sites.
The film explored the history and impact of the disaster site in Ottawa County, OK. Mining for lead and zinc began in the early 1900s; the land was stolen and bought from the Native American tribe that lived there, the Quapaws.
After most of the mining companies left, all of the waste from the huge mines remained. The mines themselves also remained and now cause sinkholes under the town. The leftover rock and waste from the mines form piles around the town.
These piles, chat piles, are saturated with lead and zinc, which leaks into the water and land in the towns. Teachers and parents noted a problem in children learning, which was a result of the high lead count in the blood and the lead stores in their bones.
High levels of lead can lead to learning and behavioral problems and brain damage especially in young children.
There were several attempts to lower the levels of these toxic chemicals in the town, such as removing dirt from yards in the town (which can hold lead and zinc) and attempting to pump the water out of the abandoned mines (the water leeches dangerous chemicals that then travel through the water system).
However, all of these techniques were largely unsuccessful, so a buyout was set up; homes and property were appraised and families were paid to leave.
Now only a few families remain in Picher; they are without police and fire protection and by the end of the year will be without water, sewer services or electricity.
The destroyed land has been given back to the Quapaw tribe, added back to their reservation.
However the tribe cannot do anything with the land besides sell the chat (the waste from the mines) for asphalt.
Even though most of the residents are gone from Picher, the problem remains. Lead and zinc are still spreading through the waterways, reaching further and further south.
Matt Myers, the director of Tar Creek, spoke after the film ended. He said, “there’s no more Superfund money…it will be about 200 years before the water is back to normal.”
For some attendees, this film was their first exposure to problems such as Superfund sites. First-year Mattie Alpert said, “I hadn’t really known much about this issue…it was really informative.”
For others, this disaster was not new. Hale and Barbara Vandermer were two retired EPA employees who attended the film.
Barbara Vandermer, who used to work on the Superfund project, said she “would have liked him [Myers] to hold the EPA’s feet to the fire more…[and] explain why this was allowed to happen.”
Hale Vandermer said, “This is one of potentially thousands of stories like this that have been hidden from the public for many years.”