L.E.A.D. Agency, Lead, and Grand Lake

ACORN Anthropocene Environment Non-Profit

            Miami, Oklahoma       We were in the Arkansas Ozarks less than three hours drive from Miami, Oklahoma in Ottawa County in the northeastern part of that state, so it made sense to take the opportunity to visit with the Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency based there.  L.E.A.D. Agency is one of the dozen or so Anthropocene Alliance groups that ACORN will be supporting over the coming eighteen months, so we were excited to get on the ground and learn more about their work.

L.E.A.D. Agency has been at it since 1997, led by Rebecca Jim, and, wow, do they have their hands full.  This area was the scene of extensive lead and zinc mining, largely beginning at the turn of the 20th century evolving into more than 300 mines in a forty-square mile area that over fifty years provided “raw materials for the majority of the American bullets of World Wars I & II, among other uses,” according to a book they published.  Readers of organizing history, also know this was a union and socialist hotbed in that period as well. This area is also the home of ten Native American tribes:  the Quapaw, Seneca-Cayuga, Miami, Modoc, Wyandotte, Ottawa, Peoria, Shawnee, Eastern Shawnee, and Cherokee.  Native Americans make up 17% of the population of the town of Miami, and many of the tribes are headquartered there.  Jim, L.E.A.D. Agency’s executive director, was a Cherokee Clanmother, and it was her activity with the tribe that triggered her founding of L.E.A.D. Agency.

The backstory of the organization and Jim’s leadership lies in the devastation and poisoning of these communities, their land, and water in the wake of the mining.  The watersheds of Tar Creek, Spring Creek, and parts of the Neosho River were contaminated.  Tailing piles of fine-grained sand-like material, called “chat” locally, checkerboard the area and have permeated building construction, playgrounds, sandboxes, and all segments of community life.  The area became of the first and largest EPA superfund sites.  In fact, as part of the cleanup and remediation, the EPA needed a local group to front one of the projects, and they had to have a lead agency.  Jim said they would step in, which is how the organization’s name became L.E.A.D. Agency, spelled out now as an acronym.  For decades, they have had big league partnerships with universities like Harvard and Vermont in different projects, but the job still faces decades more to repair the land and water.

One current fight focuses on the water levels of Grand Lake, a water and recreation lake created by damming some of the rivers.  Regular high water and flooding inundates thousands of homes in the area and when combining with the chat creates huge heath crises.  L.E.A.D. Agency opposes raising the water by another foot in 2023 for this reason, although some of the push to do so comes from their own former Senator Jim Inhofe, who owns property on the lake.

For me, part of this is not just professional, but personal as well.  In the summer of 1966, when I was working as a roustabout in the Velma, Oklahoma oil fields for a Skelly Oil subcontractor, I learned to slalom water ski on Grand Lake.  Back then, my aunt’s family had a place on the lake with bunk beds next to the house where visitors and the boys could stay.  Now whole sections of the lake are polluted to swim – or ski – and the overseers of the lake seem not to care that a direct consequence of raising the water level for recreation and other purposes will flood thousands of homes.  LEAD Agency has appealed to FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, much in the news these days, to block the efforts of the Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA) for their impunity in this area and their lack of public hearings and input.

L.E.A.D. Agency is up to its ears in this fight.  It will be a pleasure for ACORN to be able to work with them and lend a hand.