, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

April 11, 2014

Quapaw Tribe leads cleanup of federal hazmat site

QUAPAW  — The Quapaw Tribe has become the first Native American tribe in the country to lead the cleanup of a federal hazardous waste site, managing the effort to clear mining waste from an area where a Catholic church and boarding school for tribal members once stood.

Leftover mine waste once enveloped an aging structure on the site, a constant reminder of the decades of mining that ravaged land the tribe had been forced to move to in the 1800s. The site in this rural Oklahoma town also includes burial sites dating back to late that century.

“It means a lot to us because it’s our land. We want to make beneficial use out of the property, and we’re going to be here after it’s cleaned up,” Quapaw Tribe Chairman John Berrey said. “It’s our home that we’re cleaning up and we’re going to stay here after it’s cleaned.”

The site, known as the Catholic 40, held a church and boarding school dating from the 1890s that Quapaw tribal members attended until it shuttered in 1927.

A decade later, the Church leased the land to companies that mined the land for lead and zinc.  The mines closed around 1970, leaving behind large quantities of chat, or waste fragments, and a generation of problems: Children who grew up in the area started showing signs of learning disabilities, an indication of elevated levels of lead in the blood.

“Since then, it’s just been left to be,” said Craig Kreman, assistant director for the Quapaw Tribe Environmental Office.

Today the land, which is in trust with the federal government, is part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site, a 40-square-mile area that includes portions of Kansas and Missouri. More than $300 million has been dedicated to the site and trying to make it safer. This includes cleaning up nearly 3,000 residential properties and voluntarily buying out residents in four communities so they can move.

Talks between the EPA and the tribe on the more than $2 million Catholic 40 project started in 2012, Kreman said, and last December the tribe started clearing away the more than 100,000 tons of chat. The land will be tested to make sure contaminants are at appropriate levels and reseeded to try to get the vegetation back to where it was before it was contaminated.

“The lands included in the Catholic 40 site are of significant historical and cultural importance to the Quapaw Tribe,” said Jennah Durant, an EPA spokeswoman. “The Tribe demonstrated their technical capacity to clean up the site, which led to the development of the cooperative agreement.”

The project, which is expected to be finished by the end of the summer, has created more than 60 local jobs, including truck drivers and equipment operators, and many of the positions are filled by tribal members.

More than that, the cleanup allows tribe members to take control of their land and their history.

The tribe may try to salvage and preserve some of the partial structures, depending on the cost. Two are in somewhat stable shape, Garber said, while the rest are basically footprints of a foundation.

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