Tar Creek (Ottawa County), Oklahoma

Lead contamination in the Tar Creek area

Acid mine drainage and lead contamination in the Tar Creek area

Site Overview

Site Location

The 40-square mile Tar Creek Superfund Site is located in Ottawa County, a county with a population of roughly 33,000 people, in northeastern Oklahoma. Communities in this Superfund location include Cardine, Commerce, North Miami, Picher, and Quapaw communities.


County map of Oklahoma from Wikipedia.org


Location of Ottawa County, Oklahoma

(image source: en.wikipedia.org)


Tar Creek is part of the area known as the Tri-State Mining District; so named because of zinc and lead mining that occurred from the early 20th Century until the 1960’s-1970’s in this region of eastern Missouri, southeastern Kansas, and northeastern Oklahoma.

Site Description

Tar Creek is located in Ottawa County, Oklahoma.  Ottawa County is located in northeastern Oklahoma at the Oklahoma/Kansas and Oklahoma/Missouri borders. Tar Creek Superfund site consists of a forty square-mile area; however, it is part of a larger region known as the Tri-State Mining District that includes areas of Kansas and Missouri, as well as Oklahoma. A substantial amount of the land in the mining area is owned by the Quapaw Tribe; held in trust by the U.S. Department of Interior.


Beginning in the early 1900s, and continuing through the 1970s, this northeastern region of Oklahoma was extensively mined for lead and zinc ore; with this district's lead and zinc production ranking as one of the highest in the world. Milling the lead and zinc ore resulted in a concentrate of the original mined material.  However, the milling process for lead and zinc ore also produced waste mile tailings, also known as chat. Over the years, mining companies disposed of chat by creating large aboveground piles, and by dumping it into flotation or tailing ponds.  Some chat piles rise as high as 200 feet; all contain elevated levels of lead and other heavy metals.  


Images of chat material from Time Magazine


Images of Chat Material, Oklahoma

(source: www.time.com)


The U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have estimated that Tar Creek generally contains 75 million tons of chat piles, according to the publication Oklahoma Plan for Tar Creek (source: www.cees.ou.edu).


In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed the Tar Creek site on the National Priorities List, making it subject to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (also known as CERCLA, or more commonly as Superfund). EPA found that tailings were located throughout residential properties in the Tar Creek Site, with foundations of local homes and business built on chat.  In addition to chat, another by-product of the mining operation is highly acidic mine water.


Acid mine drainage into Tar Creek


Acid Mine Drainage into Tar Creek at Douthat Bridge

(image source: www.epa.gov)


When the lead and zinc mines were abandoned, they began filling with water. In the late 1970’s, acid mine drainage containing high concentrations of heavy metals began discharging into Tar Creek from natural springs, boreholes, and open mine shafts.


Map of watersheds in the Tri-State mining region


Watersheds in the Tri-State Mining Region (source: water.usgs.gov)


Several public health concerns are presented by the Superfund site, including mine shaft hazards, poor air quality due to lead-laden dust, acid mine drainage, soils contamination associated with chat piles and mine waste, and exposure of children and other susceptible populations to contaminated materials. Additional health risks are associated with consumption of fish and other wild food from the Tar Creek Superfund Site, as well as the Neosho River and Spring River watershed. All of these environmental and human health concerns are being examined by the EPA, the Department of Human Health and Services, and other state and local agencies.


In 2003, three federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov),  Department of Interior (DOI), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that facilitates cooperation of the agencies to bring a holistic response to the risks posed at the Tar Creek Superfund Site. These agencies bring unique authorities and response capabilities to the ongoing health, safety and environmental risks associated with the Tar Creek Superfund Site.


Federal, state and private efforts are coordinated by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) so that a comprehensive, holistic solution for the environmental and health problems in the area can be developed and implemented.

Many local tribal governments are pursuing additional solutions to restore their lands and protect the health of their members.


Map of the Tar Creek Superfund Site


Tar Creek Superfund Site (source: www.cees.ou.edu)

Organization Requesting Assistance

Local Environmental Action Demanded (L.E.A.D.) Agency, Inc. (leadagency.org) serves to educate the general public in the Tar Creek area. Their outreach efforts are supported by the Ottawa and Seneca/Cayuga Tribes, as well as environmental department professionals of the Cherokee, Eastern Shawnee, Wyandotte Nation and Quapaw Tribe in Oklahoma.

Beginning Date of Assistance

October 2005

Summary of TOSNAC Assistance

Currently, the TOSNAC Program is working with L.E.A.D. Agency on the following issues:

  1. Helping to establish relations with EPA Region 7 and L.E.A.D. Agency for collaboration on Miami County, Oklahoma community outreach work.
  2. Establishing a TOSNAC/K-State outreach web-page for Tar Creek that will direct readers to L.E.A.D. Agency website and contacts.
  3. Contributing to informational brochures (web-accessible) that inform people about Tar Creek Superfund Site, its investigative and cleanup activities, as well as L.E.A.D. Agency contacts, projects and successes. TOSNAC contributions will promote community empowerment and capacity building at the grassroots level by informing public about L.E.A.D. Agency work (i.e. advocating local needs and educating the general public).
  4. Providing technical assistance to a L.E.A.D. Agency project in progress, which relates to a comprehensive review of water quality documents associated with Tar Creek drainage basin.
  5. There are long-term risk management needs related to lead soil analyses in agriculture and land remediated areas. L.E.A.D. Agency has the interest and expertise to serve in an advisory capacity and lead community-based development of soil intervention and remediation strategies. TOSNAC/TOSC can investigate available resources and opportunities for development of local farmer safety and health intervention technologies and strategies.  



Tar Creek Superfund

General Water Quality and Watershed Data


Tar Creek Superfund Water Quality and Watershed Data


Local Native American Tribes and Communities

Federal and State Agencies

Human Health


NOTE:  The EPA TOSC and TOSNAC programs have ended. Communities seeking technical assistance should contact:


- Karen Martin at EPA Headquarters at 703-603-9925, Martin.Karenl@epa.gov; or


- EPA personnel identified at the bottom of the TOSNAC Information Contacts below:

TOSNAC Information Contact

Brenda Brandon

TOSNAC Program Manager

E-mail: brendabrandon@msn.com 

Voice: 785.749.8498 OR 785.532.6519

Mailing addresses

Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center
155 Indian Ave., Box 5001
Haskell Indian Nations University
Lawrence, KS 66046


Center for Hazardous Substance Research

104 Ward Hall

Kansas State University

Manhattan, KS 66506-2502


Earl Hatley

L.E.A.D. Agency

Grand Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance

E-mail: earlhatley@neok.com

URL: http://www.leadagency.org

© The Center for Hazardous Substance Research
Last modified October 13, 2009