Residents plead for EPA to buy out their town

? It is barely a town — a ghostly remnant of nearly a century of mining, with a few dilapidated houses nestled amid mountains of gray mine wastes.

Massive sinkholes and uncapped shafts dot the landscape, a deadly reminder of the abandoned underground mining caverns below. The smell of sulfur wafts across the road. A creek runs red from minerals left behind by long-gone lead- and zinc-mining operations.

Children have grown up here swimming in some of the 200-feet deep sinkholes where the blue water is so acidic that for years people thought they were getting a sunburn playing in them. Toxic dunes of lead-ridden crushed rock and sand called chat have beckoned a generation of motorcycle and four-wheeler enthusiasts.

For the 70 or so families who live here, this polluted land is home. Now the town’s future may be decided by Congress as it mulls the fate of a $3.5 million bill to buy out the last of its residents. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., introduced the bill after the state’s two senators were unable to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to fund a buyout using federal stimulus money.

Financial strife

Many residents of this poor community say they can’t afford to move. The contamination prevents them from getting loans to fix their houses or get out from under mortgages. Some say to move would force them into bankruptcy or foreclosure.

On Thursday, Jenkins hosted a delegation from the EPA on a tour of Treece and the surrounding area to hear from residents and see the problems left behind by the town’s mining past. Nearly 70 townspeople, government officials and others converged outside its tiny city hall for the event. Among them was Brian Lasiter, who pleaded for a buyout so parents like him could get their children out of town.

The EPA plans to use stimulus money to clean up about 380 acres and 2.1 million cubic yards of mine waste around Treece and nearby Baxter Springs.

“It is our opinion that is not good enough. This community is not what it was,” Jenkins told residents.

Among the EPA officials who toured the area were Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator; Bob Sussman, senior policy counsel; and William Rice, acting Region 7 administrator.

Stanislaus told the locals that government officials take their concerns seriously but made no promises.

Mines beneath the region where Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma meet once contained the richest lead and zinc ore production in the world. Today, the area has soil and water contaminated with cadmium, lead and zinc. So vast are the caverns left that the ground can collapse into them. In some places, such cave-ins are a greater risk than the pollution itself.

Letting the area die

Treece lies less than a mile from Picher, Okla., where the EPA has funded a buyout and moved residents. Treece residents argue their town was originally part of Picher and faces the same challenges.

While the van of EPA officials traveled on the highway between the two communities, state Rep. Doug Gatewood said local legend has it that beneath the road was a cavern so large it could fit the Astrodome, the massive professional sports stadium in Houston.

Less than 30 feet of soil separates the roadway from the cavern, prompting local authorities to lower weight limits on the road and scrap road improvements.

“They are just letting this area die, and it is probably best,” Gatewood said. “Treece needs to be included in that.”

Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson said the state has been asking for a special federal appropriation for the relocation of Treece residents since April 2006.

“Today, under a new President, administration officials from the EPA are coming to Treece, and this is an encouraging sign,” Parkinson said in a statement. “At the state level, we will continue to do all that we can to bring about a conclusion to this issue.”