The Environmental Scandal in Scott Pruitt’s Backyard
PICHER, Okla. — Tar Creek, Oklahoma, is breathtaking in a terrible way: At one time the world’s deepest source of lead and zinc, the three-town region is now a cratered landscape so poisonous that no one, aside from 10 holdouts, can live there. Mountains of ashlike “chat,” a toxic residue from lead-zinc milling, rise majestically among the remains of homes torn from their foundations. Abandoned pets forage around the ruins. A child’s teddy bear lies sprawled in a ghostly living room. A gorilla statue fronts an empty high school, atop a sign proclaiming “1A Football State Champs, 1984.”
Tar Creek is also part of the environmental legacy of one of the state’s—and nation’s—leading politicians, Senator Jim Inhofe, and his longtime ally, Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who is now head of President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. After the EPA struggled to clean up the area, in 2006, Inhofe endorsed a plan in which a trust overseen by local citizens would use federal dollars to purchase homes and businesses in the toxic region so residents could move elsewhere. Then, when the plan proved so problematic that it spawned more than a half-dozen civil lawsuits and an audit into possible criminal wrongdoing, Pruitt, as the state’s attorney general, invoked an exception to state freedom-of-information laws to keep the audit from being an open public record.
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Now, that decision is coming into new light as many Oklahomans clamor for the audit to be released, suggesting that its revelations will prove embarrassing to Inhofe, who played a key role in designing the buyout plan, and cast doubt on Pruitt’s decision not to move forward with charges. Last week, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit called the Campaign for Accountability raised the stakes even further, filing suit in Oklahoma courts to force the release of the audit.
“If you take a look at Scott Pruitt’s record, you see a general disregard for transparency,” said Daniel Stevens, the group’s executive director. “I don’t think it’s outside our bounds to say that Pruitt is trying to hide evidence of criminal wrongdoing.”
Pruitt, in an interview, dismissed the idea that he was covering anything up, saying his former office’s grand jury unit reviewed the audit and determined that no charges were warranted. He said he declined to make it public because he didn’t want innocent people to be besmirched, even though the auditor rejected that reasoning and maintained it should be a public document. “It was important to protect the individuals’ reputation that were in that investigation,” Pruitt said.
Nonetheless, the mess at Tar Creek continues to follow Pruitt in other ways. As EPA administrator, he has assumed full responsibility for the still-faltering cleanup. And eyebrows were raised in Oklahoma this past January when, as Pruitt was awaiting confirmation for his EPA post, a White House spokesperson told Bloomberg News that the handling of Tar Creek was emblematic of Pruitt’s philosophy: “national standards, neighborhood solutions.”
Pruitt, in an interview, said he knew nothing about the Bloomberg article, saying only that he endorses the EPA’s current work at Tar Creek and the principle of combining federal resources and state and local leadership, rather than the buyout that occurred before his time as EPA administrator, while he was Oklahoma’s attorney general.
“I think as far as a model going forward outside of the buyout, what we’re trying to do is have a renewed focus on what I think are some of the most beneficial things we can do for citizens across the country, and that’s to address some of these legacy sites that have substantial environmental challenges that allow them to once again enjoy the communities in their backyard,” he said.
But many residents of the Tar Creek area, who gave up their homes in a buyout they considered both coercive and corrupt, continue to blame Pruitt for the fact that no one was prosecuted. They described a program so rife with good-old-boy corruption that certain individuals received outsize payoffs while some homeowners got so little they couldn’t relocate anywhere nearby; meanwhile, they said, the people hired to demolish the homes received inflated contracts through a flawed process.
“We were lied to and deceived from Day One,” said Gloria Workman, who said her son has learning disabilities from growing up in the polluted zone of Tar Creek, which had lead-poisoning levels in children that were three times higher than those registered in Flint, Michigan, during the peak of its recent water crisis. “Not only were we losing our homes, we were raped in the process.”
“It was a nightmare,” said Mary Thompson, who was still awaiting a resolution from the trust when an EF4 tornado ripped through Tar Creek in 2008, throwing bodies and trailers through the sky, killing six people and destroying more than 100 homes. Without homes, many people took lower-than-expected buyout offers—however insufficient they were perceived to be—because they had nothing left, she said.
“They preyed on us after the tornado,” said Thompson, whose home was leveled.
Nonetheless, Inhofe, in a 2015 news release touting the completion of the buyout, cast it as a success because it did not lead to an expanded federal role.
“This is an example of a government program created for a specific purpose and then dissolves after the job is completed,” Inhofe proclaimed.
Now, he continues to defend it but sounds less celebratory. “The first thing to know about the Superfund site at Tar Creek is that it’s what’s called a ‘mega-site’ and that it is an exceptional circumstance in every way. You can’t compare it to any other Superfund site in the country,” Inhofe said in a statement to POLITICO. “The voluntary relocation assistance to get people out of harm’s way was right for the situation at Tar Creek, but may not be for every other Superfund—that is why state and local partnership is critical.”
To many former residents, who still want the investigative report by the state auditor to see the light of day, even these modest and conditional endorsements feel like slaps in the face.
“People hate the government out here, and it’s because of things like this,” said Aletha Redden, a lifelong resident of the area who has a Donald Trump bumper sticker on her pickup truck. “I want Scott Pruitt to know: This is not the model.”
A flat expanse of dusty roads and scrubby vegetation situated in the heart of Tornado Alley, the Tar Creek area was once the mainstay of the Quapaw Tribe, which was forcibly relocated there by the U.S. government in 1834. At the time, the territory had little economic value, but a half-century later, prospectors discovered enormously rich ore. By the turn of the 20th century, companies broke ground with drill rigs on Quapaw land.
Many of those firms made fortunes, luring white settlers into an uneasy state of coexistence with the Quapaw. Tar Creek proved to be the deepest reservoir of lead-zinc ore in the world, producing a whopping $1 billion in minerals between 1908 and 1950, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Picher, the largest of the mining towns, swelled to a population of 14,000.
Almost every aspect of life in Tar Creek traced back to the mines. The high school took on the mascot of a gorilla, a reference to workers in the mines who broke up boulders with hammers. Children played in sandboxes filled with chat, the chalky mining debris. Teenagers earned the nickname “chat rats” for climbing up the pillowy piles of toxic rubble throughout town and rolling tires down their slopes.
By the end of World War II, however, the boom was over. Most of the mining companies decamped for richer pastures. For the families left behind—including that of Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle, who grew up in the Tar Creek area in the 1940s—it was a slowly unfolding disaster. The extent of Tar Creek’s collapse was reflected in the words of John F. Kennedy, who barnstormed into Joplin, Missouri—25 miles away from Tar Creek—in the closing days of the 1960 presidential campaign.
Skip the timeline
U.S. government forcibly relocates Quapaw tribe
First mining camp at Tar Creek
Oct. 22, 1960
Mining operations cease
Dire signs of pollution
EPA contractor raided
Inhofe steadfast against buyout
First buyout begins
First buyout complete
Inhofe-supported subsidence study
Inhofe changes mind on buyout
June 6, 2006
Assistance trust authorized
First of many lawsuits filed by residents
Trust awards controversial contract for demolition and cleanup work
Final buyouts completed
April 21, 2011
Pruitt orders investigation of re-bid contracts
Investigation turned over to Pruitt
May 5, 2015
Pruitt declines charges
May 14, 2015
Criticism of Pruitt decision
Aug. 3, 2017
Open records request denied
Nov. 27, 2017
Suit demands release of auditor’s report
“My own judgment is I know no tougher occupation in the world that [sic] to be a miner, lead, zinc, coal. I am always glad to meet them because I think they live with peril,” Kennedy declared. “They have as tough a life as there is. Every other one whose hand you shake has a finger off, a foot crushed, the chances of in 20 years their having a bad accident are more than any of the rest of us. And yet in this community and in West Virginia and Idaho and in other sections of the United States, there has been no group that has been harder hit, no group that has been more forgotten.”
Indeed, after the last prospector looking for ore packed up and left in the mid-1970s, people looked to casinos and farming to make a living. But the residue from decades of mining was poisoning them. In 1979, acid mine water leached into the ground, threatening the area’s aquifers, killing fish and turning creeks a rusty orange color. When the federal Superfund program—designed to clean up the nation’s most polluted and contaminated land—kicked off in the early 1980s, Tar Creek was named to the inaugural National Priorities List. It’s still on the list.
The EPA has spent more than $176 million over the past 25 years on cleanup work inside the 42-square-mile-area, on projects from plugging mine shafts to removing contaminated surface soil in people’s yards. Though the amount of money sounds large, it hasn’t been nearly enough to remove the toxic dangers, and many residents insist the cleanup was mishandled from the get-go. In some cases, the removal of soil resulted in sloping yards, which, during bouts of rain, caused flooding and mold inside houses. In 2000, the FBI raided the offices of the EPA’s prime contractor at Tar Creek, Morrison-Knudsen. The company later settled a lawsuit brought by the federal government alleging false representation of billing and progress reports for a sum of $1 million. In the settlement, the company made no admission of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, the environmental hazards began to multiply: Shortly after the start of that Superfund spending spree, in 1993, researchers at the University of Oklahoma found that 34 percent of Quapaw children were living with lead concentrations above the federal limit. Further studies found alarming rates of lead and arsenic in both the tribal and non-tribal populations. In 1997, a university-lead study estimated that 21 percent of children near Tar Creek had elevated blood-lead levels (defined as 10 micrograms per liter at the time), which is three times higher than the highest measurements found in Flint, Michigan, in 2015. The learning disabilities and memory loss that had plagued the schools and curtailed lifespans for decades suddenly had a culprit.
As the dangers became ever-more visible and the cleanup lagged, residents rallied around the idea that the government should quickly buy them out of their homes, rather than wait for the hazardous materials to be removed. They thought they might have an ally in the state’s senior senator, Inhofe, a Republican who was chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. But Inhofe, who has a skepticism about environmental science that exceeds that of any of his colleagues, refused to consider the idea. “There will never be a buyout. I promise you that,” Inhofe told the Tulsa World in late 2003.
Inhofe’s refusal to take action of any sort was often criticized in local press, due in part to the relentless attacks of a young Democratic congressman named Brad Carson. “If you’d asked people in Oklahoma politics at the time, they’d say we were mortal enemies,” said Carson, referring to himself and Inhofe. “I was elected [to Congress] in 2000, and my goal was to untie the Gordian knot. The area is desperately poor. If it was in suburban Tulsa or Oklahoma City, there would’ve been outrage.”
In 2004, Governor Brad Henry signed a bill authorizing the use of state dollars for the relocation of roughly 100 families with children under the age of 6. Under pressure to take further action, the senior senator began to come around. At first, he secured $2 million in federal funding to pay for a study that discovered that 286 homes within Tar Creek were at risk of being swallowed up from cave-ins of underground mine shafts. This provided an opportunity for Inhofe to reverse himself on the buyout, supporting it on the grounds of protecting residents from cave-ins.
“The stability with the underground mine workings was worse than anyone had previously been thought,” recalls Ed Keheley, a retired nuclear engineer and native of Picher who co-authored the study’s final report. In the spring of 2006, Inhofe announced a joint federal and state buyout program that would begin with $20 million in funding, with the express purpose of relocating any and all people who’d voluntarily leave Tar Creek.
Having once opposed the buyout to his political detriment, Inhofe now used his clout to keep on funding it, but with the idea that decision-making would be concentrated among local leaders, not the federal government. With Inhofe’s support, the Oklahoma legislature created a nine-member panel called the Lead Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust to assume control over the project. The members were all volunteers, helping their community, but some had a vested interest in the buyout: They included, for example, a local banker whose institution would later give loans to people to help them relocate; local property owners whose own homes—and those of relatives—would be subject to the buyout; town officials; and a leader of the Quapaw Tribe.
Inhofe cast himself in the role of the community’s protector, putting out a 2008 campaign ad that declared: “Tar Creek: poisoned earth, the threat of schools and churches sinking into abandoned mines. Everyone thought it would be too much to tackle, except for one stubborn man named Inhofe.”
But over a five-year period, the buyout would become the subject of a host of civil lawsuits and the subject of a state investigation.
The local members of the trust—few, if any, of them schooled in environmental management—had two major tasks: figuring out how much each property owner should be paid for their home or business, and then choosing a company to demolish the properties. Both tasks would become the subject of complaints about cronyism, with residents saying the trust members rewarded their friends and politically connected individuals.
It didn’t help that the trust often met behind closed doors, and that the vice chairman of the trust resigned within a year. The trust’s sole employee, operations manager Sonya Harris, also quit, declaring in her resignation letter that she could no longer continue “with a clear conscience without recommending a change; I will not place myself in a position to be perceived as approving of the operations to this point.”
The first case to raise eyebrows involved the mayor of Picher, Ernest “Sam” Freeman. In 2005, when the buyout was first being discussed as a probability, he acquired three large parcels of former mining land covered with chat from the Picher Development Authority, which he chaired. Freeman bought them at 3 cents per square foot, for a total price of $2,088.50, according to the findings of a state audit at the time. It was, the audit declared, a violation of state laws forbidding members of public boards from entering into contracts with those boards. Ottawa County District Attorney Eddie Wyant called on Freeman to return the properties to the development authority in lieu of charges.
“If Sam wanted to buy that land, he needed to get off the board and purchase it legally,” Wyant told a local newspaper at the time. “I am not one to put anyone in jail over this, but he needs to clear it up.” Wyant, when reached by phone, declined to comment further.
Freeman returned the land, but, in a move that enraged some neighbors, profited off it anyway. The trust had decided that, because so much former mining land had been taken over by state authorities and tribal members, those who owned mobile homes or other shelters on land they didn’t own would be eligible for buyouts. Freeman made a claim based on the fact that he had been maintaining and renting out homes on the chat-infested property for years before he tried to buy it.
Trust documents show that Freeman received at least $274,000 from the buyout, more than half of which came from the same lots he had been ordered to return by law enforcement. (Freeman told POLITICO a payout of more than a quarter-million sounded accurate enough, though he declined to provide an exact figure.) Neighbors suspected cronyism. Freeman, who is no longer mayor, denied receiving any preferential treatment. “These people thought I bought the lots to make a killing in the buyout,” he said. “I don’t think I got more than anyone else would have.”
The size of the mayor’s profit diminished public confidence in the trust, just as it was engaged in the most delicate part of its task, figuring out how much to pay each individual property owner. Property owners were supposed to receive fair market prices as if pollution hadn’t existed in Tar Creek, based on the sales of similar properties elsewhere in northeast Oklahoma. But those calculations appeared to lack uniformity.
The average payout for the 695 properties involved in the buyout was just over $65,000, but the disparity in prices between two properties could be dramatic. Residents complained about lowball offers on some decent properties and overly high payouts for others that were rundown or minuscule in size.
“I got $3,000 for my gun shop. It took me $16,000 to build it,” said former Tar Creek resident John Frazier.
Wally Long said he and his wife got $35,000 for their Dairy Queen, while another Dairy Queen right up the road got substantially more.
“We were told [by the trust] that’s all the money there is,” Long said. “It bothered my wife a lot. She put 23 years of her life into this business.”
Meanwhile, a trust member named Janell Trimble got $185,000 for her house, and her brother collected $115,000 for his fiberboard house.