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Watchdog group still seeking communications related to Tar Creek site

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PICHER, Okla. – Amid a lawsuit regarding documents into the cleanup of an Oklahoma Superfund site, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announced that he is releasing those audits.

The Tar Creek Superfund site is one of the most polluted areas on the planet. The water in Tar Creek water runs red with poisonous lead. The chat piles, man-made mountains of toxic bedrock, loom. The land surface is at risk of collapsing into cavernous mine structures below.

It has been a decade since the federal government first declared the area uninhabitable. The towns of Picher and Cardin were both abandoned by their residents.

“It’s the largest Superfund site in Oklahoma,” Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality Executive Director Scott Thompson told News 4 in October.

In 2011, then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt requested an audit into suspected unlawful contracting practices by the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Trust at the Superfund site. Pruitt later declined to file charges and ordered that the audit not be released.

In 2015, the auditor’s office asked Pruitt to authorize the release of the audit under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

Pruitt denied the request stating, “Our office is concerned about publication of unsubstantiated criminal allegations against private citizens.” The auditor’s office disputed Pruitt’s rationale, stating that they were not aware of “any unsubstantiated claims” and that “the individuals named in the report are members of a public trust or a contractor whose services were retained as part of this substantive project.”

In November, the watchdog group 'Campaign for Accountability' made an Open Records request of the auditor’s office for the records. In response, the auditor explained that he wanted to release the records, but had been instructed not to do so by the AG’s office. The group then filed a request for the records directly with the AG’s office, which denied the request.

Current Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said the release of an investigative audit that didn't lead to criminal charges could "tarnish the reputation of innocent Oklahomans," according to the Associated Press.

Less than a week after the group filed a lawsuit against the EPA, Attorney General Hunter requested approval to release the Lead Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust audits.

According to the audit, the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust accepted a bid by a company to clean up the area for $599,988.

In the end, the project took almost two more years to complete and ended up costing the trust a total of $3.6 million.

"This report describes various problems with the LICRAT Property Improvement Clearance Project that was bid and awarded through the Department of Central Services (DCS) in December 2010. Although our investigation did not provide direct evidence for a conspiracy against the state, it did provide considerable circumstantial evidence that a conspiracy may have existed," the audit states.

On Tuesday, the Campaign for Accountability responded by filing a lawsuit in the District Court of Oklahoma County, seeking communications between former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and U.S. Sen. James Inhofe.

“As Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt refused to prosecute the misconduct and self-dealing revealed by the state auditor’s investigation of Tar Creek. Both Pruitt and his successor, Mike Hunter, then tried to conceal the state auditor’s findings from the public with Hunter releasing it only once it was clear an Oklahoma court would require it. Now, it seems Hunter is hiding Pruitt’s communications with Sen. Inhofe about Tar Creek. Why is the state’s top law enforcement official continually willing to flout Oklahoma law to protect Pruitt? The public deserves to know the whole story behind the Tar Creek debacle," said CfA Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens.

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