TAR CREEK REMADE: Environmental Legacy, Toxic Terrain and Re-Imagining the Future in the Tri-State Mining Area, Ottawa County, Oklahoma, USA.

TAR CREEK REMADE will explore technologies of toxic land reclamation and their agency in creating environmental and social equity within a critical practice of landscape architectural design and making. The studio site is the Tar Creek Superfund Site- the oldest, largest and most dangerous polluted land impacted by former mining activities in the United States.

The studio will imagine alternative design futures on behalf of the local Quapaw Nation as well as non-tribal communities living on and in the vicinity of Tar Creek as part of the Tri-State Mining Area of North-Eastern Oklahoma, USA. The site area of 40 square miles was formerly characterized as prairie and woodlands prior to mining activities that started in the 1900’s following the discovery of the largest subterranean deposits of lead and zinc in the world. A vast mining operation employing 11,000 workers in 250 mills was established that excluded the tribal communities and ran until the 1960’s when it closed down leaving a devastated landscape of polluted mining waste (chat), tailing ponds, sinkholes and tainted orange-yellow streams and riverways. It consists of the remaining principal towns of Quapaw, Commerce and North Miami. Two towns, Picher and Cardin have already been completely abandoned due to the extent of environmental hazards.

This area is contaminated by the residue of lead mining extraction resulting in an environmental legacy for the residents and the land and waterways of the region. Children under the age of six exhibit highly elevated levels of metals in their bodies causing neurological damage and serious health issues. The land and riparian ecology of the region has been devastated by acid mine drainage, land settlement of former mine shafts creates dangerous subsidence across the terrain affecting buildings, infrastructure and open space, waste ‘mountains’ of mining spoil and airborne lead dust pervade the area. 

The studio will address how practices of landscape site design and environmental engineering can productively address the social, ecological and environmental realities of this toxic terrain. Class members working in groups and individually, using original materials from the USEPA, Oklahoma State and importantly local tribal non-profit organizations will give spatial organization and advance detail design proposals for the remediation of, for example – the mining waste mountains and the intense pollution of local riverways including Tar Creek as well as reimagining the critical engineering of land subsidence and future form of the Superfund Site. Class members will be assisted by Rebecca Jim, Founder of Local Environmental Action Demanded, Inc. (LEAD) in Miami, OK and Earl Hatley, Environmental Program Director, Quapaw Tribe. The studio is open to students in all GSD degree programs.