Introduction - Site Characterization

This webpage was prepared by Gina Manders to fulfill an assignment for ES775 Advanced Image Processing
Emporia State University
Fall 2011

Image of chat pile behind home in Picher, OK. Image by Gina Manders, April 2007.
Image of tree growing in Mahuska (Fisher) chat pile in Picher, Oklahoma. Notice tire tracks on pile. Image by author, 2007.

In the area of study for this project, the Boone Formation is an aquifer that was also the source of the site’s metal ore. The mining companies pumped large volumes of water from the mines during the mining years.  After mining ceased, companies turned off the pumps and mines began refilling. Consequently, native sulfide minerals, oxidized by exposure to air, dissolved and formed acid mine water (Five Year Review Tar Creek Superfund Site, 2000). By 1979, especially in the southern portion of the Site, the aquifer meets the land surface and so contaminated ground water discharges from abandoned wells, boreholes, mine shafts and collapse structures (Fourth Five-Year Review, Report for the Tar Creek Superfund Site).

Tar, Lytle and Elm creeks are all underlain by Pennsylvania shale and experience rapid runoff, flooding and intermittent flow (ROD OU4). All three creeks are in areas with subhumid plains, impermeable soils and bedrock (Hydrologic Landscape Regions shapefile). Tar Creek drains mining areas in Cherokee County, Kansas and Ottawa County, Oklahoma. Lytle Creek is the main tributary of Tar Creek. It flows east to west through the Tar Creek Superfund Site and converges with Tar Creek just above 40 road near the former site of Douthat, OK, ~1 km south of Picher (observation). Near the confluence of Tar and Lytle Creeks, the elevations of water in the stream are usually lower than ground-water altitudes. As a result, mine water discharges to the streams in the area (Fourth Five-Year Review, Report for the Tar Creek Superfund Site).  After their confluence, Tar Creek flows southward through the Tar Creek Superfund Site and joins the Neosho River below Miami.  Elm Creek also drains mining areas in Cherokee County, Kansas and Ottawa County, Oklahoma and flows along the western edge of the Picher Field, having its confluence with the Neosho River before Tar Creek joins the river (observation).

Dr. Kenneth Luza, Oklahoma University, noted these same shales underlie the mill residues and chat piles in the area and since the shale forms a largely impermeable barrier to the downward migration of leachate, the chat piles have become an aquifer and the leachate flows laterally from the piles. Where chat accumulations are adjacent to creeks and drainages as in the case of the old Commerce Royalty Company mill (Bird Dog chat pile area), leachate can flow into the creek. Luza noted at least part of the baseflow in Tar and Lytle Creeks are maintained by this discharge of leachate from the chat piles in the area (conversation).

Lead-contaminated soils and chat piles have been a source of exposure to the population, especially to young children. A percentage of young children living in the five-city mining area are known to have blood lead levels in excess of the 10 mg/dl standard set by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The cleanup of lead-contaminated soils from residential yards and high access areas within the site has significantly reduced the exposure of the population, and as a result of these efforts, blood lead levels of children have gradually decreased although the average still remains above state and national averages (EPA Tar Creek Update December 2011).

In addition to the obvious challenges of remediating an area containing miles and miles of chat piles, abandoned mills, mine collapses and contaminated water, sediment and soils, there are subtle temporal changes taking place in the Tar Creek Superfund Site. As a result of retention of water in the chat piles over a period of many years, wetlands are now forming around the base of some piles. The composition of chat piles, bases and perimeter vary from pile-to-pile due to differences in pile content (observation).  

The drainage basin of the area’s streams has gradually been transformed and as a result has contributed to flooding in heavily mined areas and some to the flooding in the community of Miami, just south of the site and also impacted by the contamination. The erosion from mine tailings piles has resulted in increased sedimentation and a reduced hydraulic capacity of the area’s streams (Manders, G. 2009).

Also, due to remediation efforts, residents of Picher, Cardin, and Hockerville, OK are being relocated and the relocation project is near completion (Fourth Five-Year Review, Report for the Tar Creek Superfund Site). Many homes and businesses have been moved or demolished, and there is constant movement of waste rock, locally known as chat, transported by large trucks. Some chat is being sold and some is transported to a location south of 40 Road, near Douthat, Oklahoma (observation). The EPA estimates that 95% of the chat will be removed from the site over a 30-year period through commercial sales (EPA ROD OU4). In 2010, the EPA approved voluntary relocation for the residents of Treece, KS, a community less than two miles from Picher and with many environmental challenges in common with the Oklahoma portion of the Picher Field (Fourth Five-Year Review, Report for the Tar Creek Superfund Site).

Another more sudden change occurred in the community of Picher as a result of the May 10, 2008 EF-4 tornado. 800 residents remained in the city of Picher or nearby prior to the arrival of the tornado. 150 people were injured, 30 people were treated at the hospital and 6 people lost their lives due to the tornado, and all were from the Picher area. 114 homes in Picher were destroyed (Tar Creek Superfund Site: By the Numbers). The tornado for all intents and purposes resulted in the end of Picher as a community. The federal government decided to not offer money to rebuild the community since the voluntary relocation program for the area was already in process (MSNBC). The community's school closed in May, 2009 (Tulsa World). This was followed by the closing of the community's post office, summer 2009, and the end of Picher as a community on September 1, 2009, the date the city government closed (News on 6).

With Idrisi Taiga’s geographic information system (GIS) software, Landsat satellite imagery will be processed to pinpoint some of these variabilities and changes in land cover. National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) images will also be used for one portion of the project.




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© Gina Manders, 2011