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Wyandotte of Oklahoma fight to revive waterways

WYANDOTTE, Okla. - The rivers and creeks in northeastern Oklahoma once teemed with life and filled an intricate part of the diet of the Wyandotte Nation. Now not only the water is unsafe to drink, but the very plants and animals near it may present health hazards.

Problems with waste water treatment plants, a recent train accident which poured diesel fuel into Lost Creek and illegal dumping have affected waterways children once played in.

Barbara Collier, director of the nation's environmental protection agency, grew up along the Spring River and Lost Creek areas. She swam and played near the Twin Bridges area. Now she says she would be terrified to swim there because of the pollution.

Collier is concerned not only about the pollution, but about the high rates of disease she sees in tribal members and believes there may be a direct correlation between what is in the water and the diseases many of her people face.

Collier and her staff are the gate keepers, at the fork of the Neosho and Spring rivers and Lost Creek, all of which come together to form the Grand Lake, a popular tourist destination. The environmentalists say they believe, with good cause, whatever is flowing from those three rivers is endangering the safety of those who swim, fish and play in Grand Lake.

"They all run together and form Grand Lake. They are all in our original jurisdictional area," Collier said. "We are continuing to have a lot of problems with pollution. ... last summer we started seeing raw sewage in the Spring River and, of course, we are currently trying to get extensive water testing for metals to see if Tar Creek has polluted Neosho River and Spring River to the extent that it has come down stream this far. So between that and wastewater treatment plants being out of compliance along the river, it's very difficult."

"I remember when I lived up there (by the waterways)," she continued. "You could go swimming or fishing, take your children and go boating or whatever. I wouldn't do it now for anything. In the past 25 years it has deteriorated to the measure that you really have to be careful what you eat that comes out of there."

Fishermen have begun to notice fish with sores or fish that tasted strange. Collier said one group of fishermen who have come to the area for years recently came to her office because they were concerned about the fish they were catching from both the rivers and Grand Lake.

"He knew what had been in the local papers," Collier said. "We're still trying to locate where all this raw sewage was coming from ... the Quapaw Tribe had caught a man that had a septic tank service dumping into Beaver Creek which flows into the Spring Creek."

All Collier could tell the concerned fisherman was to put any fish with sores or other abnormalities on ice and bring them in for testing. She also cautioned others not to eat fish that smells or tastes funny.

The amount of testing needed requires funding, something the Wyandotte Nation is working hard to get through grants. Collier would like to see more testing in the Grand Lake area as well, but again the lack of funding prevented that from happening yet.

State cooperation has been good at the local level, Collier said, but she added that even though studies are called for she hasn't seen anything concrete yet about a solution for the pollution problem in the area. "The people in the field don't make the laws."

The environmentalists in the area have likened the situation with the rivers to the little Dutch boy who kept trying to plug holes in the dike, one problem is solved and another problem springs up someplace else.

Collier said in her opinion the safety factors in Grand Lake are very poor and will continue to be poor until upstream problems can be taken care of.

"We don't know at which levels the bacteria might be harmful," she said. "Until we can get some metal, chemical testing done, we don't know at this locale if the Tar Creek situation has infiltrated down here and to what degree that might affect people or aquatic life or animals, so it is just kind of iffy. I've had people tell me that when they have caught catfish they have tasted kind of mucky. Should they eat them? I tell them no. I wouldn't eat them. Then of course there are the ones they catch with the sores on them. I wouldn't eat them nor would I put them back into the lake."

Right now Collier said it appears the fish with sores aren't being caught on a regular basis but are a spasmodic thing. More of these fish are caught when it is warm.

Without stricter regulations year round for wastewater treatment plants, the laws of nature will continue to prevail. Whatever goes into the water upstream will eventually flow downstream and, in the case of northeastern Oklahoma, that means into the Grand Lake.

U.S. Geological Survey studies contracted by the Quapaw Tribe have come back with the message that what they found was very scary, Collier said.

Collier cautions tribal members to use common sense when going to Grand Lake, suggesting they don't swim in the water. She also advises them to watch carefully what they catch as far as fish in the lake and said they needed to proceed with caution.

"The people who make the laws need to go out in the field and act accordingly," Collier said. "They need to talk to people who lived here 50 years ago and let those people tell them what the river situations were and compare them to what they are now."

Calls from tribal members to Collier's office have been increasing, as members demand that something be done to stop the pollution. Collier listens to their concerns and to their stories. She sees diseases that didn't exist among her people 25 years ago increasing and wonders how much the pollution that is also increasing has to do with those numbers.

"What do you tell those people?" Collier asked. "That the state is allowing the wastewater to kill the stream and there is nothing we can do?"