Environment | National

Quapaw Tribe secures EPA grant for cleanup of contaminated lands

A pile of mining waste, known as chat, in Picher, Oklahoma. The waste contains lead and other toxic chemicals that are especially dangerous to the young. Photo: Randy Lane

The Quapaw Tribe will be using nearly $4.9 million in federal funds to continue cleanup efforts in Oklahoma.

Quapaw territory in the northeastern part of the state bears the unfortunate distinction of being known as the worst Superfund site in the nation, in terms of size and scope of damage. Decades of mining have left millions of tons of toxic waste, known as chat, on lands owned by the tribe and its citizens.

But the tribe, in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency and local and state entities, are slowly cleaning up the massive, 40-square mile Tar Creek Superfund site. The $4,896,088 grant was announced by Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has experience with the effort as Oklahoma's former attorney general.

“The Quapaw Tribe is fortunate to be true partners with the EPA,” Chairman John Berrey said in a press release on Thursday. “The people of Region 6 have been the best teammates we could ask for, and with the new Administrator Scott Pruitt we fit into the future of the EPA because of our tireless quality work and our ability to do more with less. We have a responsibility to be good stewards of the American tax payers resources.”

Another view of a chat pile in Picher, Oklahoma. Photo: Randy Lane

Cleanup efforts began in the early 1980s after Tar Creek was designated as one of the first Superfund sites. Some $300 million has been spent so far on remediation, relocation and other efforts, but the work is far from complete.

“I am determined to prioritize Superfund cleanups which are a core part of our mission,” Pruitt said in the press release. “It’s important that we address state and tribal rights when protecting the environment and natural resources.”

Despite the pledge, the EPA is facing the largest of budget cuts under President Donald Trump. A fiscal year 2018 blueprint released in March calls for a whopping 31 percent reduction in funds to the agency.

“We are very concerned about the overall reductions being made to EPA funding and urge Congress not to permit any more reduction,” Kevin R. Dupuis, Sr., the chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said in written testimony to key lawmakers on Tuesday.

Trump's proposal includes a $330 million cut in the Superfund account, according to the "America First" budget. The reduction is pitched as a way to improve "efficiency" and address "administrative costs."

“The agency would prioritize the use of existing settlement funds to clean up hazardous waste sites and look for ways to remove some of the barriers that have delayed the program’s ability to return sites to the community,” the blueprint reads.

Tribal leaders expect Trump to release details of the budget next week.

White House Office of Management and Budget Document:
America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again (March 16, 2017)

Related Stories:
Indian Country leaders testify about funding needs on Capitol Hill (May 16, 2017)