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OU Professor’s Ongoing Work on Tar Creek Featured in Report on America’s Most Endangered Rivers

OU Professor’s Ongoing Work on Tar Creek Featured in Report on America’s Most Endangered Rivers

Narin portrait

For over four decades, Tar Creek in northeastern Oklahoma has been off-limits for fishing, water sports and other outdoor recreational activities.

The well-publicized Tar Creek Superfund Site in the Tri-State Mining District (an area that also includes portions of southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri) originally produced lead and zinc to make bullets during both World Wars. Toxic mining waste, containing lead, zinc and cadmium – known locally as “chat” – was left on the surface of the site when mining operations ceased in the 1970s. Cleanup of the over 30 million tons of chat continues to this day. In addition, the flooded underground mines leak contaminated water to local streams.

The site, once the world’s largest lead and zinc mine, has turned Tar Creek orange, killed the aquatic life and continues to threaten human health with heavy metals, specifically iron, zinc, lead, cadmium, arsenic and manganese. Some 1 million gallons of contaminated water per day are discharged into Tar Creek, a tributary of the Neosho River, which joins the Spring River to form the Grand River. Tar Creek and the Grand River feed a major drinking water source for thousands of Oklahomans.

Despite the scale and severity of the problem, it is not an unsurmountable one, given enough effort, resources and some ingenuity, says Robert W. Nairn, director of the Center for Restoration of Ecosystems and Watersheds at the University of Oklahoma, whose work to help clean up the site over a period spanning over 20 years was recently featured in the nonprofit organization American Rivers’ 2021 listing of the United States’ most endangered rivers.

Tar Creek is No. 6 on the most current list of endangered rivers released by the 300,000-plus-member nonprofit. In the report, American Rivers and its partners call on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the state of Oklahoma to develop a cleanup plan that protects Tar Creek and the health of local Indigenous communities and other residents. Indigenous people from nine tribes make up more than 20% of the local population in the county, with many individuals having ancestry in multiple tribes.

“Professor Nairn and his students have been great partners over the life of this project,” said Scott Thompson, Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality executive director. “They have demonstrated that substantially improving water quality is possible, even at a very large mining site.”

The photo selected for the most endangered rivers report on Tar Creek depicts two of Nairn’s students – Brandon Holzbauer-Schweitzer and M’Kenzie Dorman – sampling the oxidation pond at the Southeast Commerce (Oklahoma) passive treatment system from a “home-made” catamaran, constructed by tying two canoes together using 2x4s and clamps. Holzbauer-Schweitzer, who earned his master of science degree in environmental science from OU, defended his Ph.D. this month. Dorman holds both bachelor’s and master of science degrees in environmental engineering from OU and is a current Ph.D. student.

In general, Nairn, who is David L. Boren Professor and Sam K. Viersen Family Presidential Professor in the School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science, Gallogly College of Engineering, and his team’s research focus is on “ecological engineering” – the design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with the natural environment for the benefit of both.

“We learn from Mother Nature and design and build ecosystems to solve environmental problems,” he said. “At Tar Creek, we designed, built and operate two passive treatment systems – ponds, wetlands, and bioreactors – specifically designed to improve water quality by providing the correct conditions for naturally occurring physical, geochemical, microbiological and ecological processes to take place.”

These treatment systems are helping to lower the elevated concentrations of iron, zinc, lead, cadmium, arsenic, nickel and other constituents found in the waters in this region.

“We have documented dramatic improvements in water quality, and also recovery of the fish community in the receiving stream, due to these changes,” Nairn said.

He notes that, after the initial capital investment during construction, passive treatment systems are designed for sustainable performance, driven by solar and hydrologic energies (no fossil fuels), and with limited operation and maintenance needs. Their Mayer Ranch passive treatment system in Commerce, Oklahoma, has been in continual operation since November 2008; the Southeast Commerce passive treatment system went online in February 2017.

“My team has been working here for more than 20 years, and I am confident that these problems are not irreversible – they just need resources to be coupled with the existing commitment,” Nairn said. “Designation as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers may be considered long overdue, but it is crucially necessary to raise national awareness and ensure necessary resources are coupled with existing local resolve and commitment. Acknowledgements like this can help. I am proud of the work my students have done to raise the profile of Tar Creek.”

“Dr. Nairn’s innovative thinking and devotion to the Tar Creek site is truly remarkable,” says John Antonio Sr., OU associate vice president for research and partnerships. “The passive treatment technologies that his team has pioneered – and empirically demonstrated to be highly effective – are a perfect example of what is known as ‘Engineering With Nature,’ which is now a rapidly growing area of research and education at the intersection of many disciplines, including environmental science, engineering and sustainability.”

“Bob Nairn had the audacity to take on this nation’s worst ‘irreversible’ environmental disaster, and he won,” said Robert Knox, Ted A. Kritikos Chair and Presidential Professor, School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science, Gallogly College of Engineering at OU. “You cannot do the award-winning work Bob Nairn has done without forming relationships with the people most impacted by the devastation at Tar Creek. If you contact the people of northeastern Oklahoma, you get a true measure of the local impact of Bob’s work. You will find that there is no person more admired, more trusted and more respected in northeast Oklahoma than Dr. Bob Nairn.”

Nairn says there are many ways the OU family and other concerned people can help in the efforts to clean up Tar Creek for current and future generations, as well as anglers, hunters, conservationists, artists, recreationists, nature lovers and others.

“As I said in the American Rivers release,” Nairn said, “the commitment, resolve and expertise to address these problems exist. Targeted adequate resources do not.

“Write decision-makers to help make sure this environmental tragedy in northeast Oklahoma is not forgotten; ask them to focus efforts on implementing solutions and not more studies of the problem. People can also designate the Wetlands Science and Engineering Fund (0032469), via the OU Foundation, to help support our ongoing efforts,” he added. To contribute toward the fund, visit the giving transaction page.

Tar Creek Aerial photo
Tar Creek Aerial photo
Tar Creek Aerial photo

These aerials were obtained with one of OU’s small Unoccupied Aerial Systems, a whole additional line of research in which OU Professor Robert Nairn and his team are using multispectral sensors on drones to collect reflectance data to develop predictive water quality models.


By Jerri Culpepper

Article Published:  Wednesday, May 5, 2021