Tar Creek named among America’s Most Endangered Rivers

April 13, 2021

Toxic pollution threatens public health

Jessie Thomas-Blate, American Rivers, 609-658-4769, jthomas@americanrivers.org
Rebecca Jim, Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency, 918-520-6720, leadagency@att.net  
Dr. Bob Nairn, Center for Restoration of Ecosystems and Watersheds, University of Oklahoma, 405-325-3354, nairn@ou.edu
Alexis Hidalgo, Anthropocene Alliance, 305-781-5147, Alexis@AnthropoceneAlliance.org    

Washington, D.C. – American Rivers today named Tar Creek among America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2021, citing the serious threat that toxic pollution from one of the country’s biggest Superfund sites poses to public health. American Rivers and its partners called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) 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 percent of the population in the county, with many individuals having ancestry in multiple tribes.

“The America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action to save rivers facing urgent decisions,” said Jessie Thomas-Blate with American Rivers. “We’re sounding the alarm because toxic wastewater has been threatening this creek and surrounding communities for too long. It is unacceptable. Action must be taken now to address this injustice.”

What was once the world’s largest lead and zinc mine has left a legacy of toxic waste, polluted water and contaminated soils – turning Tar Creek orange, killing aquatic life and threatening human health with heavy metals (specifically lead, cadmium, arsenic and manganese). One million gallons of contaminated water per day are discharged into Tar Creek. Indigenous subsistence lifestyle and cultural practices, hunting and fishing by local residents, and recreational activities have all been impaired or threatened.

“Water connects us and when that water is damaged, we look away as it flows by. We have done that long enough. It is time to recognize we are nothing without clean water. We must be that voice, we must be that force that speaks for our water. We demand a clean Tar Creek,” said LEAD Agency’s Rebecca Jim, Tar Creekkeeper.

“For 42 years, acid mine water and toxic runoff has been pouring down Tar Creek through the jurisdictions of three of our nine local tribes and two of our cities before its juncture with the Neosho River on its way into our drinking water lake under the eyes of the state and the EPA,” said LEAD Agency’s Earl L. Hatley, Grand Riverkeeper. “To date, they have no plan for stopping this toxic offsite release. How much longer must we wait?  When will our lives matter?”

Tar Creek is 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 – the Grand Lake ‘O the Cherokees, created by Pensacola Dam. The watershed is a destination for anglers, hunters, conservationists, artists, recreationists and nature lovers. 

“Tar Creek has run red for decades, but its problems are not irreversible. With focused determination, collective dedication and adequate resources, we can see Tar Creek run clear again,” said Dr. Bob Nairn, Center for Restoration of Ecosystems and Watersheds, University of Oklahoma. “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.”

American Rivers and its partners called on EPA, FERC and the State of Oklahoma to address historic and ongoing contamination in Tar Creek and throughout the Grand Lake watershed in conjunction with the relicensing of the Grand River’s Pensacola Dam. American Rivers also called on the EPA Region 6 Administrator to conduct a new Remedial Investigation and health risk assessment that is more protective of human health and the environment. 

“The time is long past when this kind of pollution can be tolerated. The people who live near Tar Creek, the aquatic life in the river or on its banks — and indeed the river itself – have rights that need to be protected,” said Stephen F. Eisenman, Co-founder, Anthropocene Alliance.

“You don’t play at Tar Creek, you don’t swim in it, and if you see a fish you don’t dare catch and cook it – because it’s poisoned,” said Martin Lively, resident of Miami, Oklahoma. “As a community, we’ve come to fear Tar Creek, and rightly so. But 40 years of danger and fear is long enough. Tar Creek deserves to be clean and healthy, and we deserve the chance to become proud of Tar Creek again. I want to take my nieces and nephews to play there, for them to learn to skip rocks and find crawdads, to explore the natural world. I want to see students hanging out in the summer enjoying the big flat rocks along the banks. I want to overhear people say, “I’ll meet you at the creek.” Most of all, right now, I want government officials to do the right thing, not to cut corners or settle for “good enough.” Cleaning Tar Creek the right way is hard, but it’ll be worth it.”

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.

Other rivers in the region listed as most endangered in recent years include Lower Missouri River (2020 & 2021) and Buffalo National River (2017 & 2019).


#1: Snake River (ID, WA, OR)
Threat: Four federal dams on the lower Snake River

#2: Lower Missouri River (MO, IA, NE, KS)
Threat: Outdated river management

#3: Boundary Waters (MN)
Threat: Sulfide-ore copper mining

#4: South River (GA)
Threat: Pollution due to lax enforcement

#5: Pecos River (NM)
Threat: Pollution from proposed hardrock mining

#6: Tar Creek (OK)
Threat: Pollution from Tar Creek Superfund Site

#7: McCloud River (CA)
Threat: Raising of Shasta Dam

#8: Ipswich River (MA)
Threat: Excessive water withdrawals

#9: Raccoon River (IA)
Threat: Pollution from industrial agriculture and factory farming

#10: Turkey Creek (MS)
Threat: Two major developments