Public Release: 

Department of Environmental Quality awards $1.6 million grant to continue water cleanup

Research will help communities in Tar Creek Superfund site

University of Oklahoma

NORMAN, Okla. - For the past decade, professor Robert Nairn and his team of students at the University of Oklahoma College of Engineering have worked to begin cleaning mineral contamination from the waters at the Tar Creek Superfund site. The cost-effective, low-effort passive water treatment process designed by Nairn and his team is proving successful, and the Department of Environmental Quality recently awarded Nairn a $1.6 million grant to continue his work in northeast Oklahoma.

For more than a century, financially lucrative mining operations in the Tri-State Mining District of northeast Oklahoma, southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas extracted zinc and lead minerals from the earth. The evidence left behind included land scorched with contamination and valuable water resources too damaged by zinc, lead, iron and cadmium to support aquatic life. Nairn, a professor in OU's School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and director of the Center for Restoration of Ecosystems and Watersheds, has made it his lifelong mission to clean the Tar Creek watershed and restore balance to the communities and wildlife in the area. With the additional funding from DEQ, Nairn and his team of engineers and environmental scientists will continue to pursue his goal of clean water in the region. Called the Southeast Commerce Project, design and construction of the additional passive water treatment facility will begin in 2015 in Commerce, Oklahoma.

"Rural communities deserve a healthy environment free from the toxins left behind by previous industrial activity," Nairn said. "I remain hopeful that someday we'll be able to restore the water in the Tar Creek watershed to levels that are safe for human health and the environment."

Though Nairn is seeing important and impactful success, his work is far from over. Although the Tar Creek mines have long closed operation, evidence of their chemical and mineral waste in the watershed will remain for centuries longer. The remediation projects address only a small portion of the larger problem. The design life for the passive treatment projects is 30 years, but significant maintenance like pond excavation and rebuilding will need to be completed to continue the water remediation process.

"Cleaning the waters of the Tar Creek watershed is a lifetime passion for me," Nairn said. "After seeing the way poor water quality affects the people and the land, I'm dedicated to finding the team, funding and support to help heal these communities."

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ABOUT: The University of Oklahoma College of Engineering challenges students to solve the world's toughest problems through a powerful combination of education, entrepreneurship, research, community service and student competitions. Research is focused on both basic and applied topics of societal significance including biomedical engineering, energy, engineering education, civil infrastructure, nanotechnology and weather technology.

The programs within the college's eight areas of study are consistently ranked in the top third of engineering programs in the U.S. with research expenditures of more than $22 million and the formation of 12 start-up companies.

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