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Poncas join chemical workers to protest neighboring pollution

PONCA CITY, Okla. - "We feel God puts us where we're supposed to be and we have come to love this place," said Ponca film actor Casey Camp who lives with her family near Ponca City.

When the Ponca arrived in northern Oklahoma in the 19th century after their forcible removal from Nebraska, they chose the highest spot on the southern plains landscape for their tribal cemetery in order to have a view of the four directions. Now buried next to Camp's ancestors, including her mother, father and nephew, is Ponca City's garbage. The city's municipal landfill, located on land adjacent to the cemetery, is a gargantuan man-made mountain blocking a great portion of the view.

Feeling trapped and overwhelmed by industry and environmental contamination, a diverse group of about 150 people rallied recently in a walking "toxic tour" of the major industrial facilities adjoining tribal lands. The rally and walking tour was an effort to bring attention, they said, to environmental injustices facing the Ponca people.

Ponca Tribe members and environmental staff, student groups, environmentalists and union members gathered together in the Standing Bear Memorial park on the south side of Ponca City across from the Conoco-Phillips crude oil refinery, the largest in Oklahoma. Conoco has a history of contributions to the area including the park. According to Earl Hatley, director of the Oklahoma Toxics Campaign, and a supporter who spoke at the opening of the rally in the park, Conoco's contributions have not always been positive.

During a year of heavy rains, basements in what was a housing addition across the road from the refinery began to flood. Residents complained of smelling gasoline and having headaches, respiratory problems and other ailments. Investigations by some homeowners found that the problem was the groundwater that flooded the basements and wicked up through foundations, causing fumes to accumulate in the home's living areas.

It was discovered that groundwater, contaminated by Conoco's refined product leaking from the nearby Conoco tank farm, formed an underground plume that moved off-site and under the homes north of the plant. Conoco was taken to court in 1990 and a settlement was reached in 1992. The company bought approximately 200 homes and some other residents in the area were paid damages. The company leveled the neighborhood, planted trees and the southern portion of the area is now Standing Bear Park.

Hatley, who is compiling a list of toxic waste sites on and near Indian lands, pointed to the trees and commented, "It bothers me to be back here after 12 years. They tried to plant trees and make this a park but there aren't very many healthy-looking trees here."

Some Ponca, like Camp feel her people whose tribal lands are located on the city's south side share a disproportionate burden of industry and pollution. She believes Ponca Iron moved from its location in town because it was causing environmental concerns in the non-Indian community.

"And where did they move to? South - where we are," she exclaimed.

Although Ponca City appears to be the site of more than its share of industry the group's major environmental concern is focused on a company that was formerly Witco, now Continental Carbon based in Houston. The China Synthetic Rubber Company of Taiwan owns Continental Carbon.

Representatives from several environmental groups and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union also spoke at the opening of the rally and toxic tour. The groups have joined together to form the Coalition for Environmental and Economic Justice. Members of PACE International Union have been shut out of the plant since May 2001 when they failed to renegotiate a contract agreement. The union has filed several unfair labor practice charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board and also has expressed health and safety concerns inside the plant.

Other environmental concerns came to light in January when PACE and the Ponca environmental officials found about 20 chemical barrels and other industrial waste dumped in the woods next to the plant. The illegal dumpsite sits in the floodplain about 100 yards from the Arkansas River. The area was not fenced and was frequented by children living nearby. A Ponca housing addition is located just yards southwest of the plant.

"People shouldn't have to live with this kind of contamination," said Ron Sherrer, environmental director for the Ponca Tribe.

Complaints have been made to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. The two groups also complained that Continental Carbon's wastewater might be leaking and creating contaminated springs that run toward Arkansas River.

Todd Carlson, Local 5-857 chair, said that there is unity between the groups. "I hope today is the start of building a coalition to make an environment that is suitable for our children and grandchildren," he said.

Julie Horinek of the Ponca environmental office said that although the tribe and the union have joined forces and have some overlapping concerns, the tribe and tribal community has raised concerns about the company for years. She and other tribal members and officials think the community has a high rate of respiratory problems and there has been a child born with cancer. In another Ponca family, three of five children have asthma. They are looking into possibilities for health studies of the community. Groundwater contamination on lands is also a major issue. Horinek also helped to organize the rally.

Beneath the Ponca flag and carrying the new CEEJ banner, the group began the three-mile walking tour towards the Continental carbon black facility in almost 90-degree weather. The group marched from the neighborhood-turned-memorial park where participants of the annual Standing Bear pow wow began to assemble. A few pow wow goers joined the walk as onlookers waved, clapped their hands and honked car horns to show support as the group of protesters marched out of the park.

A Pickup truck pulled a flat bed utility trailer where young children and elders seated on brightly colored blankets atop straw bales held signs exclaiming, "We deserve to breathe" and "Clean Air, Clean Water, Clean Earth". A dozen or more vehicles followed. Uphill and out of the park, Dwain Camp led the walkers shouting in unison, "No Justice. No Peace. Know Justice. Know Peace!"

Local law enforcement gave escort as the marchers crossed a major highway lined with industrial plants.

The four-to-five-mile walk ended in the Ponca cemetery. Though most of the walkers had dropped out from the unusual heat of the autumn day, the newly formed coalition representatives marched together to the end. Casey Camp stood with friends at her mother's grave.

"She would be here if she could, you know. She was always there to support her people. Now I have to do it for the children," she said.