Oklahoma’s Tar Creek named among America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2022

April 18, 2022

Toxic mining waste threatens clean water, public health

Jessie Thomas-Blate, American Rivers, 202-243-7030
Rebecca Jim, Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency, 918-520-6720
Bob Nairn, Center for Restoration of Ecosystems and Watersheds, University of Oklahoma, 405-325-3354

Washington, D.C. – American Rivers today named Oklahoma’s Tar Creek one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2022, highlighting the threat that toxic mining pollution from one of the nation’s biggest Superfund sites poses to clean water and public health.

One million gallons of contaminated water are discharged daily into Tar Creek – a legacy of what was once the world’s largest lead and zinc mine. Industry abandoned Ottawa County in the 1960s, leaving behind 75 million tons of lead-contaminated tailings piles. The mining epicenter contains 40 square miles of abandoned mines with more than 30 major tailings piles as high as 200 feet tall. By 1979, an aquifer had filled the abandoned mine caverns, and acid mine water loaded with lead, zinc, arsenic and cadmium began flowing into Tar Creek, killing most aquatic life and turning the water orange.

The pollution continues to threaten local communities with health risks. When children are poisoned by lead, it can affect not only their IQ and how they learn, but it can harm every organ in their bodies with life-long effects. In the Tar Creek watershed, one-third of all Indigenous children were found to be affected by lead poisoning in the early 1990’s, and no action has been taken since to address the contamination.

“America’s Most Endangered Rivers is an urgent call to action,” said Jessie ThomasBlate with American Rivers. “Tar Creek should be the lifeblood of these communities. Instead, toxic mining pollution has turned the creek into a hazard. It’s time to clean up this mess so that communities can benefit from a healthy creek.”

American Rivers and its partners called on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, state of Oklahoma and Tribal Nations (including Quapaw, Miami, Peoria, Ottawa, Modoc, Eastern Shawnee, Wyandot, Seneca-Cayuga and Shawnee) to work together to develop a comprehensive solution to clean up the pollution and safeguard public health.

“As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in 2022, the critical need for and importance of this list of endangered rivers should give us all pause,” said Dr. Robert W. Nairn with the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Restoration of Ecosystems and Watersheds. “Can Tar Creek run clean and clear again? Yes, it can— with recognition and appreciation of the challenges and through the hard work and cooperative efforts of scientists and citizens alike. I hope we can celebrate it sooner rather than later, and not have to wait another 50 years.”

“The environmental irresponsibility of mining companies, local, state and federal officials, is breathtaking. Only local residents, especially LEAD Agency, have fought back against this murder of a river,” said Stephen F. Eisenman, co-founder of Anthropocene Alliance.

“I am happy that American Rivers has placed Tar Creek on this list. However, the fact that Tar Creek has spent 43 of the past 50 years since the passage of the Clean Water Act with one million gallons per day of mine water surfacing into it is appalling. Meanwhile, the state and EPA assessments that this situation is irreversible were and still are untrue,” said Earl Hatley, President, LEAD Agency. “We need a Memorandum of Understanding now between the agencies involved to stop this discharge down Tar Creek into our drinking water lake (Grand Lake) once and for all!”

Martin Lively, Grand Riverkeeper, said, “For more than 40 years, Tar Creek has carried heavy metals to Grand Lake. Annual flooding has spread those metals throughout the Grand River watershed and over countless yards and farms. It’s time for upstream and downstream agencies to speak on the record, to develop a comprehensive plan to manage and remove toxic heavy metals not only from Tar Creek, but from Grand Lake, the Neosho and Spring Rivers, and all the other impacted streams in this too-longdamaged watershed. This MOU is a critical first step down that path.”

“Water is life, and Tar Creek deserves life to return. Federal agencies have failed and we demand that they bring all required resources and work together to show the world this can be done,” said Rebecca Jim, Tar Creekkeeper.

Tar Creek once supported a rich ecosystem – fish, crawdads, mussels and plants provided ample subsistence to the area’s Indigenous people. Along Tar Creek, they found wildlife and plants that provided food, medicines and clean water. Only a few decades after many tribes were forcibly relocated to this part of Oklahoma in the 19th century, metal ores were discovered and the largest lead mine in the world transformed Tar Creek. Ottawa County is home to nine Tribal Nations (Quapaw, Miami, Peoria, Ottawa, Modoc, Eastern Shawnee, Wyandot, Seneca-Cayuga and Shawnee). Tribal members make up more than 20 percent of the population in the county, with many individuals having ancestry in multiple tribes. The watershed is further shared by the Cherokee Nation, which borders it on the West and South.

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.

Tar Creek was previously listed among America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2021. The Colorado and Mississippi rivers are also included on the list this year. Other rivers in the region listed as most endangered in recent years include the Pecos River (2021), Lower Missouri River (2020), Buffalo National River (2019 & 2017) and Lower Rio Grande (2018).

American Rivers reviews nominations for America’s Most Endangered Rivers from local groups and individuals across the country, and selects rivers based on three criteria: 1) the river’s significance to people and wildlife, 2) the magnitude of the threat to the river and communities, especially in light of climate change and environmental justice, 3) a decision in the next 12 months that the public can influence.

America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2022

#1 Colorado River
State: CO, UT, AZ, NV, CA, WY, NM, Mexico
Threat: Climate change, outdated water management

#2 Snake River
State: ID, WA, OR
Threat: Four federal dams

#3 Mobile River
State: AL
Threat: Coal ash contamination

#4 Maine’s Atlantic Salmon Rivers
State: ME
Threat: Dams

#5 Coosa River
State: TN, GA, AL
Threat: Agricultural pollution

#6 Mississippi River
State: MN, WI, IL, IA, MO, KY, TN, AR, MS, LA
Threat: Pollution, habitat loss

#7 Lower Kern River
State: CA
Threat: Excessive water withdrawals

#8 San Pedro River
State: AZ
Threat: Excessive water pumping; loss of Clean Water Act protections

#9 Los Angeles River
State: CA
Threat: Development, pollution

#10 Tar Creek
State: OK
Threat: Pollution


American Rivers believes a future of clean water and healthy rivers for everyone, everywhere is essential. Since 1973, we have protected wild rivers, restored damaged rivers and conserved clean water for people and nature. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., and 300,000 supporters, members and volunteers across the country, we are the most trusted and influential river conservation organization in the United States, delivering solutions for a better future. Because life needs rivers. www.AmericanRivers.org