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Ponca Tribe proceeds with lawsuits over carbon black pollution

Part one

OKLAHOMA CITY - When E.W. Marland drilled for oil in close proximity to a Ponca tribal graveyard near Ponca City in 1911, it was the beginning of many things for Marland - the rise and fall of an oil empire that would eventually become Conoco, as well as terms as Oklahoma congressman and governor.

But for Oklahoma's Ponca Tribe, it was the beginning of a long line of industrial pollutants that would affect the tribal community for decades to come.

One of the latest in a long line of corporations to have a factory near the Ponca Tribe is the Houston, Texas-based Continental Carbon Co., owned by the Koo family of Taiwan. The Ponca Tribe filed a lawsuit in April 2005 on the basis of carbon black pollution emitted from the CCC plant located near the Ponca community of White Eagle. Carbon black is used to reinforce tires and hoses, and is an ingredient in printing ink.

Attorneys representing the Ponca Tribe and individual tribal members as well as attorneys for CCC were scheduled to meet Aug. 2 in federal court to set a trial date for early spring 2008. However, plaintiffs for the Ponca Tribe received a notice Aug. 1 from the federal judge hearing the case that the scheduling meeting was ''stricken until further notice from the court,'' said Kalyn Free, attorney for the Ponca Tribe. Free was disappointed that the scheduling meeting did not happen on the appointed date and that they would work quickly for a new scheduling meeting. Free added that the people of the Ponca Tribe ''have waited a long time for justice,'' she said.

According to the lawsuit filed by the Ponca Tribe, the carbon black pollution has affected not only residential property and overall quality of life, but has specifically affected the health of White Eagle residents.

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''The reality that the Ponca tribal members live with is completely different than anyone else's reality,'' said Free, a member of the Choctaw Nation. ''The fact that you have children that, when they're outside playing, because they have breathing problems and asthma because of the pollution, you've got 3- or 4-year-olds coming in and asking their parents for a breathing treatment. Little kids who know how to set up a nebulizer. This is a natural way of life - they know nothing different. They think that it's normal that they're covered with carbon, this black powder. They can't have an Easter egg hunt. They can't play outside. Their entire way of life is different.

''The parents have made adjustments. Most of them have ripped out their carpet. One family in particular put black tile down in their house because they can't keep their homes clean. They can't keep their clothes clean. They can't keep their children clean.''

In addition to the health problems caused by carbon black pollution, other potential sources of pollution such as a ConocoPhillips refinery and a landfill within sight of the Ponca tribal cemetery can have other effects beyond those that are physical, including depression and a higher rate of domestic violence.

''It is so subtle,'' said current Ponca tribal chair and former Ponca environmental director Dan Jones about the effects of pollution on his tribe. ''It manifests itself in very violent tendencies. In all of our background, it is a culture based on the purity of the earth and the sanctity of the earth - the air, all the elements. Regardless today of a Ponca tribal member's religious affiliation, somewhere in the back of their mind, they've heard from either grandparents or relatives that these things are sacred. They are the source of all life.''

In concurrence with Jones on the decades-long effects of industrial pollution is Jonathan Hook, the Environmental Protection Agency Region 6 director of Environmental Justice and Tribal Affairs, whose office is in Dallas. Hook, a Cherokee Nation member who has been director of these offices for more than three years, said that the Ponca Tribe has long been subject to a series of ''environmental stressors'' and that it is the role of the EPA to not only study water and air samples, but also to determine how these stressors can affect a tribe's ''traditional lifeways.''

''I have to believe Chairman Jones is looking at [environmental damage] in terms of multiple stressors and cumulative risk,'' Hook said. ''When you combine the number of different stressors along with the length of time that the community's been subjected to these stressors, then there's a significant impact.''

(Continued in part two)