Art for a change
Lecture series brings environmental issues close to home
Gretchen Burns | reporter
The 2013 Interdisciplinary Lecture series came to a close Friday, Sept. 27.
The series, sponsored by the Art Department, chose the theme of environmentally friendly this year and was centered on artist Vaughn Wascovich’s pinhole photographs of Tar Creek in Oklahoma.
On Thursday, Sept. 26., Darren Botello-Samson, professor of histo
ry, philosophy and social sciences, gave a lecture on the laws surrounding environmental regulation of superfund sites, such as Tar Creek. He was followed by a speech from Wascovich about his work.
Wascovich says his work attempts to understand and demonstrate the local populations close to the land and in spite of the hazards, their reluctance to leave.
On Friday, Steve Scott, university president, opened the lectures and discussed not only the issues of Tar Creek but also of Picher, Okla.,
“My grandfather worked in the mines, and I heard stories about the issues from him,” Scott said. “I grew up in Baxter Springs, Kansas and we had an alkali creek that wasn’t quite as toxic as Tar Creek, but you knew that something wasn’t right with it because the color wasn’t right.”
Other lectures were given by various professors including Alicia Mason, assistant professor in communication, from different departments across campus.
Mason, who specializes in public health research related to risk/crisis communication, and other community members knowledgeable about Tar Creek also participated in a Q and A session.
Central to the questions asked to the panel was the issue of the Picher mines.
The Picher mines were the most productive mining fields in the Tri-State Lead and Zinc District in the early half of the 1900s. From 1917 to 1947 they produced more than $2 billion. More than 50 percent of the 200 million tons of ore removed from the mines was used in World War I and 30 percent in World War II.
Mining ceased in 1970 and the abandoned mines filled with water, accumulating over 100,000 acre-feet underground.
The water became contaminated and began to seep from the mines near Commerce, Okla.
In 1983 the Picher area became part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agengcy’s Superfund Site program and remains the No. 1 Superfund Site in America. There are 1,200 mine shafts in the Picher area, 450 of which are still open. Over 70 million tons of waste tailings and 36 million tons of mill sand and sludge make environmental cleanup efforts a monumental task.
“Acid mined water has spread and increased in quantity,” Mason said. “Things aren’t getting better like it is said they are.”
Since 1983 the EPA has spent over $250 million on fixing the 50-square-mile superfund site.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe declared a federal buyout for the residents of Picher and three surrounding towns in 2006. The EPA did not support the buyout as a solution to the public health issues of the site.
“This is a comedy of errors,” said Gene Bicknell, former Picher resident. “This is a governmental problem. It’s up to us to take an approach and change the system. The EPA is arrogant. The EPA doesn’t care.”
The panel also discussed issues about the toxicity of the mines.
“There were high rates of tuberculosis, silicosis, kidney and heart diseases, liver and other cancers that happened because the miners were breathing in the dust,” said Ed Keheley, member of the Tar Creek Subsidence Evaluation Team.
Bicknell says he also had a grandfather who worked in the mines and he spoke of how the miners were treated.
“There were no benefits for the miners,” he said. “When the mines opened, no one thought about the health of their workers. No one cared at the time.”
Wascovich’s work on Tar Creek appeared at Pitt State three years ago. After student and community feedback about the exhibit was acquired, Portico Bowman, gallery director, and Rhona Shand, department chair, thought that having a forum would be a good way for people to come together and educate others on various aspects of the topic.
“We pick exhibits for the coming year and then we pick an exhibit that has a particularly potent issue that can be fruitful for an interdisciplinary lecture series,” Bowman said. “We try to make sure that we aren’t just singing to the choir or teaching art students. We want to be able to reach everybody across this campus in some way or another.”