The people of Bokoshe, Okla., are dying of cancer in huge numbers

Cancer has ravaged the families of Bokoshe, Okla. Credit: Carlan Tapp

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Is Coal Ash Killing This Oklahoma Town?

The people of Bokoshe, Okla., breathe coal ash being dumped nearby every day. They believe it's causing widespread health problems and a rise in cancer deaths.

The wind that blows through Bokoshe, Okla. is an ominous one. A small, low-income town near the Arkansas border, Bokoshe sits in the shadow of a coal power plant. Its toxic byproduct, coal ash, is trucked daily to a nearby dump, and when the wind blows through town, that ash rains down on its residents. They believe it is to blame for the asthma and cancer that runs rampant there.

For six years, one photographer has documented the story, and struggles, of the people of Bokoshe. By photographing the same people and places over time, Carlan Tapp illustrates the plague of sickness and death, and also the resiliency of a community that finds itself in the midst of a potential health crisis and without any lifelines.

Tapp’s father gave him a camera when he was six, and Tapp hasn’t stopped shooting since. Early in his career, he worked for newspapers, before landing a position in the early 1970s as an assistant to Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park. He later spent more than two decades as a studio photographer in Seattle, before a fateful trip to New York City in 2001.

Tapp had traveled there for meetings in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and found himself walking downtown among the chaos of the cleanup. He rode the subway uptown, where he emerged in Central Park and took the sole photo of his trip. There, in the natural world, Tapp says he found “some kind of semblance of order within all this chaos.”

When he returned to Seattle, he knew it was time for a change. “I’m done doing this stuff I’ve been doing,” he says he told his wife Nancy. “It’s time to get back to my roots.” They packed up and moved to New Mexico, and Tapp recentered his career around documenting the relationship between people and the natural world. He now works as a freelance documentary photographer, whose work has appeared in exhibits across the U.S. 

He began tackling the issue of coal with a project documenting how coal impacted the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, which then led him to the aftermath of the 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee. He followed the ash to Uniontown, Ala., the poor, black community where it was dumped. He veered off to cover the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, he learned of a small community in rural Oklahoma with a massive coal ash dump and widespread disease.

At his wife’s prodding, Tapp swung through Bokoshe on his way home from a trip to the Gulf in August 2010, and he’s been telling its story ever since.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ICN: How did your early-career assistantship with Ansel Adams influence you?

Carlan Tapp: There was a very interesting philosophy in how Ansel used his photography and that was probably a big influence on me. He used his work in such a way to bring about awareness for the natural environment and what was happening.

ICN: How did you start photographing coal ash?

Tapp: I started in the Navajo Nation looking at health issues, and those kept pointing toward issues with the burning of coal. I did more and more research, and then really spent a lot of time talking to the elders and people who were living in this immediate environment and experiencing tremendous health issues with the burning of coal and the residue of coal—coal ash. That started the whole investigative thing.

When they had the big spill in Tennessee, I immediately picked up on that and knew what the consequences of that really were. I had a photography student who was a toxicologist on Three Mile Island. I got to know him fairly well. He gave me the low-down and that opened up my eyes to a lot more.

Photographer Carlan Tapp
Carlan Tapp

It was always amazing to me because I found one underlying constant in all this stuff: that in the United States we were taking very toxic material and we were putting it into the poorest communities without a lot of concern—if any concern—for the effects on people, on human beings. So that was kind of the beginning.

ICN: How did you first hear about Bokoshe?

Tapp: I was on my way back from Uniontown, Alabama and someone had told me, you should really check this out. There’s a coal ash waste pit in this town and the name of the company is Making Money Having Fun. So that got my antennae up right away about what they must be doing.

ICN: When did you go to Bokoshe and why?

Tapp: I was covering the BP oil spill down in the Gulf. I called my wife Nancy and said, ‘I think I’m done down here.’ That was my second or third trip down to BP. So she said, out of the clear blue sky, ‘Well, how far are you from that little place we talked about, Bokoshe, Oklahoma? You need to go there and see what’s up.’

So I found some contacts there and gave them a call.

ICN: What was that first trip like?

Tapp: There’s no place to stay around that immediate area at all. It’s fairly rural, very low income. There’s not much left in the town of Bokoshe, which at one point was actually a fairly thriving little community, economically. So I stayed a little distance away.

The next morning, I was going to go into town and stop at this place called Sassy’s Cafe to meet these folks. So I drive into town, and that also happens to be where these trucks that carry all the ash turn to drive out to the pit site. My jaw dropped. I parked my car and the street is full of light gray coal ash. I’d been around the stuff enough to recognize it. This is toxic material and it’s lining the streets. That was my initial observation and also literally one of those ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing here’ kind of things.

ICN: Why did you keep going back?

Tapp: My work is more long term, to engage and get to know a community and see what’s going on. On the first trip, I went to stop by and ended up spending a week there. Every morning I’d go to the cafe and engage more people, and they’d say, ‘Well, you should talk to so-and-so.’ That started that whole process.

I took the initial piece of work, came home and started thinking more about it and seeing what the real issues were. The more I looked at it, the more questions I had. So that drove me to go back again and again, now for six years.

One of the things that started to become very apparent to me was that we were not looking at the health issues that were starting to really pop up all over the place. When I got down to Bokoshe and I saw that it was handled without any kind of respect for the people or the community, that drove me to want to go back.

ICN: How many trips have you made?

Tapp: Five trips in 2010 alone. Probably 10 to 12 at least in the last six years.

ICN: What changes have you seen in Bokoshe over the years?

Tapp: I’ve seen a lot of people pass away that I met when I first went there. It’s unbelievable. You go to enough places and you do this kind of work—these people become your family. You see what they experience in so many different ways.

I’ve seen sixth-grade kids where over half of them have asthma and there’s a locker full of inhalers. The trucks would be so dirty running from the power plant into town that the stuff would just be blowing off of them. They’ll get some complaints and clean them up a little bit. But when I was just there a month ago I was looking at the sides of the roads and everything, and you go out towards the pit, and it’s still all there.

I’ve seen the town slowly but surely diminishing even more. Sassy’s Cafe is closed now. There are two convenience gas stations there and that’s all.

People that I know really well, I’ve seen their health go downhill at a rapid pace. People like Charles Tackett. When I first photographed him and met him, he was still able to work and now he’s lost his home, which he lived in for 27 years, because of health issues.

I have not seen the kind of attention and awareness that this situation should have, and that disappoints me. I’ve seen the EPA come out, do some water things but never go out again. The state of Oklahoma should be ashamed of itself.

It’s hard to see these things. It’s hard to come home after you see it.

ICN: What drives you to do this kind of work?

Tapp: My grandfather seven times back was the last chief of our tribe, the Wicomico in Virginia. He butted heads in the encroachment on the tribal land by Captain John Smith, and he did so because he was standing up for his people. And I guess that has been pushed forward to me since day one, with my family and my father and what he instilled in me. I’m very thankful that he instilled it. I think about the work in the context of seven generations. When I had my first granddaughter, that’s when I really started to think about, what if I just did nothing? What if I turned my head and said this is not important, and she found out about that. What would she have to be proud of?

I had a dream one night, my granddaughters had come to me and they said, ‘Grandfather, what were you doing as all this stuff was unraveling?’ I woke up from that dream about 10 years ago and I thought, ‘Well, at least I’ll say that we tried to do this.’

ICN: How do you balance the role of being a documentarian and an advocate for Bokoshe?

Tapp: I always like to make a couple of things really clear because I feel really strong about it. I’m not an environmentalist. I don’t consider myself to be an activist. I’m not going to be out there carrying a sign, yelling and screaming or anything else. I’m going to use my camera and point it in a direction that is as honest as I can be.

ICN: What is your goal and hope for the people of Bokoshe?

Tapp: Currently in Bokoshe, it’s a free-for-all for the coal ash. They dump it on the ground, the wind comes up, it covers the town, it poisons the people, they die of cancer.

We’ve got to clean up Bokoshe. We’ve got to stop this cancer rate. And the people who are ill, we have to take care of them. To see them lose their homes, to see them lose their lives. They’re operating on a shoestring to begin with. In this country today, that’s not right in my book.

A huge step for Bokoshe in my book would be to get a very extensive health study started there.

ICN: Are there other Bokoshes out there?

Tapp: I get emails and calls from other communities that say, ‘We’ve seen some of your work. Would you consider coming to our community?’ It’s a matter of our funds, which are so limited.

I wish there were more hours in the day.

ICN: As a photographer, how do you know when you’re done telling a story? When will you be done telling Bokoshe’s story?

Tapp: I could close my notebook on it if the pit was closed down, properly covered and taken care of in some way, shape or form. It’s the legacy stuff. If that was done and there was a really good health study that went on to help all the people who are suffering with illness there, then I’d say okay, story finished.