EPA: Mushroom compost removes pollutants from Tar Creek site

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Mushroom compost has been extracting contaminants from the heavily polluted Tar Creek Superfund Site in northeastern Oklahoma for a decade, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report.

Tar Creek is a 40-square-mile (103-square-kilometer) former mine and one of the nation's oldest, most complex sites in the Superfund program that funds and authorizes EPA cleanup of contaminated sites.

The passive treatment system at the Ottawa County site layers mushroom compost on ponds to remove and separate cadmium, lead and zinc from the tainted water, the Tulsa World reported.

The system is one of numerous initiatives named in the Superfund site's strategic plan announced last week by the EPA, with cooperation from the Quapaw Tribe and Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

Bob Nairn, professor at the University of Oklahoma's Center for Restoration of Ecosystems and Watersheds, has been monitoring the water draining from the ponds for more than 10 years. He said the polluted mine water transforms into something appropriate for aquatic wildlife due to the unique chemistry of the compost and dirt.

He said the compost ponds treat about half a million gallons of water a day.

Companies mined millions of tons of lead and zinc ore at the Picher Mining Field for seven decades before the field was closed in the 1960s. During mining operations, thousands of gallons of water were pumped through the mines to keep them clear. Once mining operations ended, billions of gallons of contaminated water were left in and around the mines. Left untreated, water carrying high levels of zinc, lead, iron, nickel and cadmium emptied into the Tar Creek and its tributaries.

The mine field was declared a Superfund site in 1983.

Each pond removes either iron, lead or zinc, and one has a wind-operated power station to operate bubblers that re-oxygenate the water, he said.

OU researchers tested various compost materials and determined the J-M, Inc. mushroom compost satisfied all the right conditions.

"We put a lot of work in with it in the laboratory," he said. "We looked at different composts, looked at different manures."

Scott Engelbrecht, growing operations manager at J-M Farms, said the farm's compost begins as chicken litter with wheat straw, cottonseed meal, gypsum and some urea.

The materials are composted until they form a soil in which mushrooms are grown. The original compost laid down 10 years ago at the Superfund site is fertilizer that already had been used to cultivate mushrooms.

Nairn said more treatment pond systems could be used on other tributaries to enhance the concentrations of heavy metals flowing into Tar Creek.

"One of the most exciting things is we've documented a tripling of the number of species of fish in the tributary from about a half dozen up to 18, and there are massive numbers more of the fish," he said. "Beavers and muskrats have moved back into the stream, as well, although they've caused some minor problems for us because they like to stop things that flow."


Lawsuit alleges county in Oklahoma running debtor's prison

By SEAN MURPHY Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A county in northeast Oklahoma routinely jails poor people because they can't afford to pay court-ordered fees and fines, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed Thursday against three judges.

The lawsuit filed in Washington County on behalf of indigent defendants also names the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System and its board of directors. The suit alleges the state agency is complicit because it incentivizes attorneys to close cases quickly, even if it means forfeiting the rights of their clients.

"Proceedings in Washington County provide an extreme example of Oklahoma's broken fines and fees system," the lawsuit stated. "No ability-to-pay inquiry is made at the time of sentencing, nor are defendants advised of their right to such an inquiry by their OIDS public defenders."

The suit claims indigent defendants are being jailed in violation of their rights under both the U.S. and Oklahoma constitutions, as well as a state law that requires courts to make an ability-to-pay determination when assessing fees and costs.

Washington County District Attorney Kevin Buchanan said it would be inappropriate to comment since he hadn't reviewed the lawsuit. Messages left Thursday with Special Judge Jared Sigler and the executive director of OIDS weren't immediately returned.

Two other judges named in the suit — John Gerkin and Curtis Delapp — have recently stepped down.

Delapp agreed to resign last year while facing on ouster trial before the Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary for abuse of power. He was accused of jailing hundreds of people for contempt of court, including one woman sent to jail for four days for eating sunflower seeds in court.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three Washington County criminal defendants by the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.

Myesha Braden, the director of the group's Criminal Justice Project, said they have been analyzing cases in Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma in which people are being incarcerated essentially for being poor. She said the problem is particularly acute in states like Oklahoma that have turned to "offender-funded justice," a term she used to describe criminal defendants who are subsidizing the cost of their own prosecution.

"We kept seeing a lack of care or concern for individuals who were poor and unable to pay fines and fees," Braden said.

One of the plaintiffs, 23-year-old Tulsa resident Sharonica Carter, who was imprisoned for two years at age 16, now owes more than $5,000 to Washington County District Court. That's almost double the original fines and fees assessed in 2011, according to the suit.

"The debt endangers Ms. Carter's ability to afford basic necessities," the suit stated. "Her indigence and consequent inability to pay her fines and fees places her in imminent danger of repeated incarceration."