TULSA, Okla. - On Dec. 10, the Quapaw Nation filed a major suit in federal district court for the northern district of Oklahoma, in Tulsa, against the last surviving mining companies that turned Quapaw land into the heavily contaminated Tar Creek Superfund site. The site encompasses parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, but the most infamous section is in Oklahoma's Ottawa County, including the towns of Picher, Cardin, Commerce, North Miami, and Quapaw.
The mining and milling of lead and zinc ore from the 1920s - 1970s left approximately 300 miles of underground tunnels and millions of tons of tailings/chat (toxic waste) which are deposited in hundreds of piles and sediment retention ponds near the residential communities. Some piles are as high as 200 feet. As a result, the government has identified the area as having both a health crisis and an economic crisis, as many major employers have left the area.
In 1983 the 40 square-mile Tar Creek Superfund Site made the National Priorities List, but most of the funding for the Environmental Protection Agency had been cut by that point because of governmental cutbacks, effectively making the law unenforceable. Quapaw Chairman John Berrey said this suit is a way of getting complete restoration for his tribe's area, and he sees it as a precedent-setting case. "We're not suing anyone but the mining companies," Berrey told Indian Country Today. "In the long run this should set a precedent and help other tribes with this kind of problem."
New Orleans Attorney Allan Kanner is heading up the case for the Quapaw tribe. "We are treating this as a related case among other cases that are filed in front of the same judge; we have a trust litigation case against the Department of the Interior tied in with Cobell v. Norton," Kanner said, noting the epic, ongoing lawsuit against the DOI. "It's impossible to tell how long this case will take, but we hope to be able to move it to trial within two years. It's been going on for 20 years, so we couldn't do much worse than the status quo," Kanner laughed.
Kanner also wants to make it clear that the tribe wants to see the land returned to its natural state, the way it was before the mining began more than 80 years ago. "'Restoration' is the word we like, restoration is the goal," Kanner said.
"Traditionally they usually use the term 'clean-up' in reference to site remediation, where they do some emergency interim things to protect the public from exposure, like putting up fences or putting clay caps down; that's often called 'clean-up' or 'site remediation.' What we want is 'restoration,' which is turning the land back to its natural state."
By suing for restoration, the dollar amount is open-ended. "There are estimates that the restoration could cost billions of dollars," Kanner said. "Obviously many of our tribal members want to see restoration in their lifetime, so we need to get rolling on this. I think we should see some action within 30 days. There are a number of mining companies that have been sued, so it's going to be a sorting out process and that will probably happen early on, then there will be a certain number of objections filed. Written notices, 60-day notices of intent to sue, are also being sent to the government, so we will be adding people to the suit as we go along."