QUAPAW — Truck after truck drives down a winding dirt road, past men in hard hats holding stop signs and radios, then onto the highway and away to dump the contaminated mine waste they're hauling.
It's an overcast Friday afternoon, and Tim Kent walks through the woods pointing to various ruins and foundations that are now overgrown with brush.
“You can see where they piled the chat right up to the side of the building,” he says.
Kent stands in the middle of what was once a boarding school operated by the Catholic Church. Constructed in 1892, it was the site where many Quapaw tribal members attended church and school until the facility closed in 1927. A decade later, the church leased the property to a mining company, and today it's part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site.
The trucks are operated by the Quapaw Tribe, which started cleaning up the site last week after reaching an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency. It marks the first time in EPA history a tribe has been granted authority to manage the cleanup of property within a Superfund site, and the project will serve as a model for future EPA agreements with tribes across the nation.
The cleanup is taking place on a 40-acre tract a few miles southeast of Quapaw at a location known as the Catholic 40 site. The land is owned by the tribe, as is much of the area comprising the Superfund site, and the effort is the culmination of years of work on the part of the tribe to get more involved in the cleanup.
The Catholic 40 site was part of the Lincolnville Mining District, most of which predates mining in the Picher area. In order to use the land, mining companies needed leases from the Division of Indian Affairs. In some cases, tribal members were opposed to the mining, but the government had individuals declared incompetent and signed the mining leases on their behalf.
“Mining was sort of forced down the throat of the tribal members,” said Kent, the Quapaw Tribe's environmental director. “It's been a legacy the tribe never really signed on for.”
For years the tribe has watched as the EPA worked to clean up its land. It finally decided it should have a hand in the effort.
“It just makes sense,” Kent said. “Instead of EPA using contractors from out of state, why doesn't the tribe do the work? The tribe's got construction capability, they've got scientists, engineers, attorneys. We can do it, why aren't we doing it? We asked the EPA that question and they couldn't give us an answer.”
It took years for the tribe to convince the EPA it could do the work, and it wasn't easy, Kent said. The tribe had to generate engineering plans and specifications, which required EPA approval. The agency sometimes allows states to take the lead on cleanup projects, but never before a tribe.
Tribal involvement began in 2002 with a Superfund Cooperative Agreement with the EPA, a pact which allowed the tribe to be involved in cleanup decisions and sit at the table during cleanup negotiations. That's when the tribe hired Kent, an engineering geologist, to serve as its Superfund coordinator.
He brought extensive experience in mine cleanups, and reviewed all the documents the EPA was releasing that established a plan for cleanup work. He, and the tribe, were instrumental in forming the EPA's record of decision for the site, issued in 2008. After its release the tribe started a dialogue about actually participating in the work, then hired an engineer and support staff and worked to build its capacity in order to actually do cleanup work. The work has culminated in the project at Catholic 40.
The tribe has purchased construction equipment, set up an office and trained a staff. It has added mapping software, drafting software and computers. When the tribe constructed Downstream Casino and Resort it formed a construction division called Quapaw Services Authority, which has also done work on roads and other buildings owned by the tribe. Combining the capabilities of the QSA with the tribe's environmental office, the tribe believes it is well-suited to handle cleanup projects.
At Catholic 40 there are 30 trucks, two or three large excavators and three or four bulldozers. About a dozen employees work in construction management, and combined with 30 truck drivers, another dozen heavy equipment operators and support staff, the project employs upwards of 60 people.
Many were hired specifically for this project as contract labor, but the QSA has also added permanent employees in anticipation of future cleanup work.
EPA awarded the tribe $2.6 million for the project, which involves hauling off roughly 100,000 tons of chat. A property line runs through the north of the area, and Kent said another 50,000 tons of chat are on the other side. The tribe hopes the EPA will allow it to remediate that land, as well. The project is expected to take a few months.
Workers have filled in one mine shaft and are currently working their way toward the ruins of the boarding school campus. Kent said work will slow at that point, with much of the excavation done by hand.
“We have an archaeologist working with us to help us if we discover something underneath the chat that we didn't know was there,” he said. “He's going to help us excavate and make sure we don't damage anything. We're going to take it slow on that part of the site.”
Several tribal members are buried in a cemetery near the entrance to the site, and Kent said it's possible there are unmarked graves elsewhere on the site.
The school was important to the tribe because it offered Quapaw children an opportunity to stay close to home during a time when many Native-American children were taken out of their homes and sent to white schools to be integrated into white society.
“They wanted them to learn English and forget about their tribal heritage,” Kent said. “It was real important for the tribe that the church came in because the Quapaw children were able to stay around here with their families. It was a boarding school but it was right here among the tribe.”
The church and school consisted of more than a dozen buildings at its peak, and while only ruins remain, the tribe wants to restore the area and add historical markers and possibly a walking path.
“Up to this point people haven't been interested in going out there because of these safety and environmental issues,” Kent said. “Once we get it cleaned up it will be an important landmark for the tribe. That's the ultimate goal.”
By embarking on the cleanup, the tribe hopes to demonstrate to the EPA it has the capabilities to remediate Tar Creek sites, giving the tribe a basis to request more clean-up work.
“Tar Creek's going to be a 30 or 40 year cleanup,” Kent said. “It's going to last for decades because of all the chat that's left. And this tribe will probably end up getting most of the land that's cleaned up. It's just logical the tribe should benefit from doing the actual cleanup.”
And others tribes around the country with Superfund sites on tribal land are looking at this project to see how well it works.
“They're looking at us to see how this works and they want to apply it on their reservations,” Kent said. “It's a pretty big deal but it's a logical progression that the tribe's doing it.”
Joe Hubbard, a spokesperson for EPA Region 6 based in Dallas, said the agreement with the Quapaw Tribe is the first of its kind.
“Generally speaking, we've always awarded tribes with different projects,” Hubbard said. “There have been a number of air projects, a number of water projects that tribes have been responsible for. This is just taking another step as far as tribes implementing environmental programs.”
Quapaw Tribal Chairman John Berry said the project is exciting for everyone involved.
“The Quapaw Tribe will be here forever, and we have a vested interest in the land and in the interests of our neighbors,” he said in a release. “Therefore, we are anxious to demonstrate that the Quapaw tribe is the appropriate stakeholder to perform remediation activities on tribal properties and, thereby, help restore the land to uses that will benefit the future of the tribe and the local community.”