When Melinda Stotts moved to Miami, Oklahoma, 25 years ago, it was during a flood event. 

She said she was devastated at first but that her family found a home not in the flooding area. 

“Our family later built a home on a property in rural Ottawa County that we specifically chose because it was not in a flood zone. With FEMA’s remapping, our home was later included in a flood zone and we now must purchase flood insurance for $2,000 a year. This devalues our property,” she told the Daily Yonder. “My husband runs a large retail establishment in Miami and the flooding regularly hinders traffic in and out of Miami. We have many friends who are affected by flooding, and some who have lost homes and businesses. Some move away.”

Stotts is one of thousands of residents of Ottawa County in rural Northeastern Oklahoma dealing with flooding, which is made even worse by the remnants of the Tar Creek Superfund site. 

More than 120 years of active mining and unremediated contamination within the Tar Creek Superfund Site have led to a public health crisis among the area’s approximately 31,000 residents, many of whom are low-income members of the region’s nine Tribal Nations. 

For decades, toxic mining waste has oozed heavy metals like lead, zinc, and cadmium into Tar Creek. The contamination has led to confirmed cases of lead poisoning and other health issues among the local population. The former towns of Picher and Cardin took a federal buyout in 2010 and no longer exist; the towns that remain are in grave danger. 

A new floodplain map shows the impact that flooding is having on the area, including in Miami. 

“The town of Miami, Oklahoma, will not exist if flooding increases — which it will,” said Rebecca Jim, executive director of LEAD Agency, which she founded with activist Earl Hatley in 1997 to educate and organize the community around environmental concerns, in a statement. “This is a question of environmental justice.” 

LEAD Agency’s new map shows that when Tar Creek floods, the county not only suffers the impact of toxic creekwater but also direct contamination from towers of toxic waste known as “chat,” which loom up to 200 feet over the landscape. The region has experienced increased flooding in recent years and will likely see more due to climate change.

Jim, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said the maps show different zones of flooding, allowing for residents to see when they could be affected. 

At an annual event put on recently by LEAD Agency, Jim and others passed out pdf files of the maps because many of the local residents don’t have access or can’t access the Internet. In the audience were members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Now we all know that they have work to do. They’ve got to ask for funding,” Jim said. 

A spokesperson from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the Daily Yonder that EPA appreciates the development and release of the tool to help inform the public about flooding potential within and downstream of the Tar Creek Superfund site. 

“EPA encourages all property owners within Ottawa County to take advantage of the free yard testing offered by EPA through the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  And, if property owners are concerned about re-contamination following a flood event, EPA encourages them to request additional free yard testing,” the spokesperson added. 

“We have shared the map with our legal and technical teams for their review and hope to be able to use the map as another method to educate and inform the public of these ongoing challenges we’re facing,” she said, adding: “Flooding affects every member of our community in some way, directly as a community through the economic impacts and hindrance of development.”

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