By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern

Rebecca Jim, Founder and Executive Director of Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency, Inc, shared her experience as an activist for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series. Jim shared about her community’s fight for environmental justice of the Tar Creek area, one of the largest and most polluted Superfund sites in the United States.

LEAD works to raise environmental concerns in Northeast Oklahoma, take action against environmental hazards that harm the community, conduct workshops and seminars, and strengthen efforts by partnerships in Oklahoma and the nation.

Jim is a member of the Cherokee Nation. Many native tribes were forced to move into land located in Northeastern Oklahoma in Ottawa County. The land was then discovered to be rich in lead and zinc, consequently, leading to the mining and extraction of the area beginning around the early 1900’s. Her environmental work began when, as a school counselor, she became aware of her students’ concerns for their environment. Although the area is no longer in production, what remains has dangerous consequences for the community. Debris and rubble is contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and zinc. 

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is in charge of issuing mining leases and suggested that tribal land owners use the waste as a resource and form of income. In effect, poisonous residue was transported throughout the county and used for gravel, asphalt, foundations, driveways, roads, etc. In 1994, it was discovered that 35 percent of children living on the site had high concentrations of lead in their blood. This led the EPA to sample soil in high-access areas (HAA) and discover high concentrations of heavy metals. The EPA began excavations to clean up HAAs and even residential properties. The cleanup continues to this day.

 “It is a legacy that I really wouldn’t have wished on anyone.”

The site has struggled with funding. With the help of CHEJ, LEAD has been fighting for the reauthorization of the Superfund. Jim stated that they are a “broke Superfund” and are “at the will of Congress” for any financing. Jim believes money and science can solve the site’s problems.

Funding is not the only financial issue. The BIA allowed mining leases for individuals to mine on tribal lands, but later dealt those individuals incompetent to deal with their wealth, therefore, many never received their earnings.

“The more you look at our site, the deeper the environmental injustice is.”

Still, Jim has hope for justice. If the creek is able to get cleaned up, they can clean the rest of the site.

“What we’re hoping to do is give hope…we can make this place a safer place to live.”