The Tragedy Of Tar Creek

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PHOTOGRAPHS FOR TIME BY STEVE LISS

LEAD'S LEGACY: Who is going to pay to remove these poison mountains?

To get a better view of the situation, John Sparkman guns his flame-red truck up a massive pile of gravel. From the summit, a lifeless brown wasteland stretches to the horizon, like a scene from a science-fiction movie. Mountains of mine tailings, some as tall as 13-story buildings, others as wide as four football fields, loom over streets, homes, churches and schools. Dust, laced with lead, cadmium and other poisonous metals, blows off the man-made hills and 800 acres of dry settling ponds. "It gets in your teeth," says Sparkman, head of a local citizens' group. "It cakes in your ears and hair. It's like we've been environmentally raped."

Hyperbole? Drive through the desolate towns around Picher, Okla., and you might think differently. This is eco-assault on an epic scale. The prairie here in the northeast corner of the state is punctured with 480 open mine shafts and 30,000 drill holes. Little League fields have been built over an immense underground cavity that could collapse at any time. Acid mine waste flushes into drinking wells. When the water rises in Tar Creek, which runs through the site, a neon-orange scum oozes onto the roadside. Wild onions, a regional delicacy tossed into scrambled eggs, are saturated with cadmium — which may explain, local doctors say, why three different kidney dialysis centers have opened here to serve a population of only 30,000.


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But the grimmest legacy of a century of intensive lead and zinc mining are the "lead heads," or "chat rats," as the kids who grew up around here are known. As toddlers, they played in sandboxes of chat — the powdery output of mills after ore is extracted from rock. As preteens, they rode their bikes across the gravel mounds and swam in lime-green sinkholes. Their parents used mine tailings to make driveways and foundations, never thinking that contaminated dust might blow through the heating ducts of their ranch houses. In the past decade, studies have shown that up to 38% of local children have had high levels of lead in their blood — an exposure that can cause permanent neurological damage and learning disabilities. "Our kids hit a brick wall," says Kim Pace, principal of the Picher-Cardin Elementary School. "Their eyes skip and jump. It takes them 100 repetitions to learn a sound."

At her kitchen table, Evona Moss helps her son Michael, 10, with his homework. Michael grew up across the street from a chat pile, and at one point the third-grader's lead levels measured 40% above the Centers for Disease Control's danger level. He repeated kindergarten. "I used to think he was lazy," says his mother, "but he tries so hard. One minute he knows the words, and a half-hour later he doesn't. Every night he kneels down and prays to be a better reader."

It wasn't supposed to be like this. In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act — commonly known as the Superfund law — one of the boldest environmental statutes in U.S. history. It was a law designed to fit all circumstances. It covered existing plants whose owners could be forced to clean up their dumps. It covered polluted sites long since abandoned by their owners: defunct factories, refineries and mines. Even when companies followed the standard, if dubious, practices of the day — dumping toxic waste in rivers, burying it in leaky drums or just leaving it, as in Oklahoma, to blow in the wind — they would be held accountable. And if they refused to clean up their messes, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would do so for them and charge treble damages for its trouble. In the event that the perpetrators had disappeared or gone out of business, a general tax on polluting industries — a "Superfund"--would pay to fix the damage.

But today Superfund is a program under siege, plagued by partisan politics, industry stonewalling and bureaucratic inertia. The U.S. government has spent $27 billion on the effort and forced individual polluters to spend an additional $21 billion. Love Canal, the deadly dump in New York State that spurred the law's passage, has been capped with a layer of clay, and the EPA proposed last month to take it off the list. So far, 278 sites have been delisted. But there are thousands more out there. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), 1 out of 4 Americans still lives within four miles of a Superfund site — many of them killing fields saturated with cancer-causing chemicals and other toxins.

The GAO reports that the program's budget fell 35% in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past decade. And environmentalists say that Bush appointees are slowing the pace of cleanups and failing to list potential new sites. According to the EPA's inspector general, 29 projects in 17 states were underfunded last year. The Administration, charges New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, has "allowed — deliberately — these sites to rot where they are."

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