Although flooding can have severe impacts on any community, when waters rise in Miami, Oklahoma, they bring with them toxic heavy metals such as lead—remnants of the region’s once robust mining industry. The twin threats of flooding and toxic pollution shape the advocacy work of Rebecca Jim, a founding member and executive director of the Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Her work focuses on the polluted and volatile Tar Creek, which flows through the Tar Creek Superfund site before bisecting the town of Miami.
Jim is battling to improve the policies that dictate the water level in nearby Grand Lake ‘O the Cherokees (Grand Lake), into which Tar Creek empties (and that’s cited as the cause of multiple local flood events in recent decades); to urge increased mitigation and restoration throughout the watershed, with the goal of lowering the health impacts and recovery costs caused by both heavy metals in the water and flood events; and to help eliminate the inequities that have long faced the nine Native American Tribes that call the area home.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does flooding affect your community?
In a way, it's sucking the life out of this town. When you drive around this community, you see hundreds of empty places where homes used to be. And many of the homes that are still standing in the most flooded areas are not habitable. Then there are other homes, with people still living in them, that I’m not sure would be safe enough for people if they were inspected, due to the repetitive flooding and the health impacts—such as from residual mold—of living in a home that flooded. And the list of businesses that have closed and disappeared is long. It’s killed the spirit of this community. And it's not just here in Miami; it’s all the way to Pensacola Dam, about 40 miles south of here, in Disney, Oklahoma.
What about the impact on the environment locally?
For us, every flood is a toxic flood, because it moves the heavy metal remnants of the former lead mines upstream. Many of the piles of lead chat [a toxic byproduct of lead mining] remain in the floodplain; they haven’t been moved in all these years and are still bleeding every time there's a flood. So all of that comes down the stream and is deposited along the way. On our environmental impact map, you’ll see the number of home yards that have been remediated in the county, and you can see pink dots for how many are underwater in a flood. So even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has paid to have the yards dug up and remediated because they were contaminated with lead, they’re re-dosed anytime there's a flood.
Can you remember a time when Tar Creek was a clean, safe area?
I came to work in this community in 1978, the year before the water turned orange in Tar Creek. I remember in November 1979, there were junior high kids here that went fishing. They went back the next day, and the fish were all dead.
That’s not to say that there wasn't some mine drainage coming down from chat piles through the years before; probably the creek has not really, truly been clean since 1905, when lead mining started there.
How long do you think industry has known that the pollution was a problem?
I have a document that goes back to 1939 in which mine operators were discussing the effect that chat runoff would have on fish. They already knew.
And Grand Lake, which now causes backup flooding, was being filled up in 1940.
And how is the lake affecting your community today?
What we're facing here are man-made floods. They don't have to be occurring. We believe that the Grand River Dam Authority, a state entity charged with operating the Pensacola Dam, has mismanaged the way the dam draws down water before flooding occurs.
Floods don't come all the time, but when a big one comes, it isolates this town; there’s no getting in and out. It’s a dangerous deal if you’re on the other side of the flooding. Need a fire truck, or need to get to the emergency room for something? Need to get workers to work or people to shops just to get the basics? It’s not going to happen. It impacts every business, every community.
What are some effects of the flooding and contamination on Tribal culture?
What I think about is how to be an advocate for your home when it's not your home. We've got Tribes that were moved here years ago, and we still haven’t learned to love this place like we should. Tribal members live beyond the boundaries of their reservation lands. They’re scattered here on this block, that block, every other house or so. The injuries are spread across all of the Tribes.
Our ancestors are not buried here; our stories did not start here; our origins sources aren’t here. So because of that, I don't think we fight for the place. Many of these Tribes were forced to move several times before they were ultimately left here.
So they’re wondering, Will we be moved again? But also, How many blackberries can you pick? Where can you dig a wild onion? Where do you dare cut this asparagus? How do you love your environment? How do you go back to your culture? How exactly do you work with the native grasses and weave your baskets while worried about your children crawling in debris that's left over when you scrape the contaminated bark off the honeysuckle or the buckbrush?
As you say, many of Oklahoma’s Tribal communities are located where they are now because they were forced out of their ancestral lands. Given the sensitivity around relocation—such as buyouts and managed retreat—for Indigenous communities, how can Tribal, federal, and state governments best collaborate to ensure the communities’ needs are put first?
The federal and state agencies really need to talk to one another. All of our issues are linked, so we don’t just need the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates flow at the Pensacola Dam, at the table. We also need the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. We need the Indian Health [Service]; we need the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the EPA, and the Army Corps of Engineers. And we need the state agencies. What we're asking is that they be required to meet together and that what happens in those meetings be in the public record.
Your organization, LEAD, has been pushing for a clean water protection ordinance in Miami, which would legally recognize the rights of Tar Creek to exist, regenerate, and flourish. What would it mean to recognize the rights of the Tar Creek tributary?
It would give Tar Creek some standing, which she sure deserves. It would help wake people up to the fact that they have a creek that they're not able to play in or swim in. Currently, we’re planning to present the ordinance to the city council and ask them to adopt it.
What other polices or programs are you advocating for to minimize flooding and limit contamination caused by the former mining sites?
We're working on a survey of the 100-year flood plain. We're trying to determine how many times people were flooded, what kind of damage it did, and if they're interested in a buyout. We’re asking how much it would cost for them to move somewhere else, and where would they move—just basic questions. These people need help now. They need to have a future somewhere dry.
We’re also encouraging people to send their flood stories to FERC to let the agency know how flooding has affected individuals, families, the town, and the Tribes. We want FERC to get a fuller picture before it grants the next 30-to-50-year license to operate the Pensacola dam and determines the dam’s water levels.
How does LEAD collaborate with the groups that represent flood victims and advocate for disaster resilience?
We’ve always been the only environmental justice organization in this corner of the state. The Anthropocene Alliance has been good for linking us up with organizations that we never would have known existed. American Rivers helped us get Tar Creek designated as one of the top 10 most endangered rivers two years in a row.
We’ve also had great partnerships with universities and researchers: The last two years, Harvard Graduate School of Design students have developed designs for our future. They looked at how you make the land better, so it can be productive and habitable. They’ve come up with some fabulous ideas.
What are some of their ideas?
The project designs ranged from using the remaining mine waste to build mounds that will be standing 10,000 years from now, monuments to the place and the Tribes who lived there and shared the wealth beneath their lands with nations to win world wars. Many of the designs allowed water to be central to communities while allowing it space to flow through without harming people or property. Re-imagining the landscape was the central theme, with these designs using native plant species and widening the range of the native bison.
What drives you to keep doing this work?
It's the kids. I was an Indian counselor for 25 years in the public school system. The children were different when I got here, and I didn't know why. It was 15 years before we understood it was lead poisoning; they were acting out because they were jacked up on lead. It manifests itself in all the problems I was seeing in classrooms, the years that were wiped away from kids that just couldn't learn. And then there’s the kids who are now dangerously sick adults. I’m sitting with them through dialysis— and seeing them buried too young.
I remember when a new doctor came to the Indian Health Center here. She asked a nurse, “How come these parents are bringing their kids in for Ritalin?” The nurse said she’d been reading about the problems lead poisoning causes kids. The doctor said, “I'm just out of medical school and I learned about lead poisoning, and that only happens in the inner cities.” But the nurse knew that we’re just five miles from the largest lead and zinc mining site in the country, maybe in the world. Understanding that, the doctor began testing every child who came into the Indian clinic.
Still, it took a while before authorities began doing remedial work on the land here. They didn’t want to spend the money. It's just all about inequalities. We didn't matter at all.
This Q&A is part of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ “Local Resilience Champions” series—conversations with advocates from throughout the country about how flooding and environmental justice issues are affecting their region and how their efforts are improving outcomes for human and ecological communities. Anna Marandi of Pew spearheaded the discussion and outreach to identify this advocate and led the creation of this Q&A. Pew sends a special thank you to the Anthropocene Alliance (A2) network for connecting us with Rebecca Jim and LEAD Agency. A2 is the nation’s largest coalition of frontline communities fighting for climate and environmental justice, with 140 member communities in 38 states and territories.
How One Woman Became the Voice for Flood Survivors
Advocate Aims to Empower Gulf Coast Residents, Communities
America’s Overdose Crisis
Sign up for our five-email course explaining the overdose crisis in America, the state of treatment access, and ways to improve care