Final families wait out mining town's last days
13 December 2009, 12:00 a.m.
Here are some important dates in the recent histories of Treece, Kan., and Picher, Okla.:
Early 1970s: Last active mines in the area closed.
1983: Cherokee County and Tar Creek Superfund Sites placed on EPA’s National Priorities List.
1988: EPA initiated investigation activities at the Treece subsite of the Cherokee County Superfund Site.
1997: Record of Decision signed for Treece subsite, calling for total residential cleanup.
2000: Residential cleanups finished at Treece subsite -- 148 properties evaluated, 41 yards remediated.
January 2004: First phase of buyout for families with young children in Picher ($5 million voluntary buyout). A total of 51 families were relocated through state-funded program.
May 2006: Picher buyout expanded -- $20 million plan announced to relocate Picher residents.
May 10, 2008: Deadly EF4 tornado hits Picher, Okla.
Aug. 20, 2009: Kansas Congressional delegation and top EPA officials visit Treece and Picher.
Sept. 1, 2009: Picher dissolves city charter.
Sept. 8-9, 2009: EPA conducts blood-lead screenings in Treece.
Oct. 29, 2009: Congress approves legislation authorizing EPA’s buyout of Treece.
Town incorporated: Feb. 26, 1918, with a population of 612 residents.
Median Household Income: $22,500
Median Home Value: $10,000
Average Property Tax Bill: $199
Median Age of Residents: 36.9
Number of Residents Under 18: 46
Number of Residents Over 65: 25
Number of Houses Eligible for Buyout: Kansas Department of Health and Environment calculations show 77 properties with structures and 47 properties with no improvements.
— Source: 2000 U.S. Census data
Treece Inside a small house in a rural area of southeast Kansas, 6-year-old Haden Woodcock struggles to put on his Cub Scout uniform.
His mom, Heather, makes dinner in the kitchen, while 4-year-old Ryan runs around talking about Autobots and Decepticons and his favorite Transformer toys.
It’s a scene that could be playing out in houses all across America, if it weren’t for the open mine shaft just yards from their back door that has expanded into a sink hole, plunging 300 feet into the earth below.
Or the fact that Rodney and Heather Woodcock’s sons have lead poisoning from years of being exposed to the piles of chat that surround their hometown of Treece.
The Woodcocks are among 100 residents living in one of the most toxic sites in the country — a town ravaged by a century of mining lead and zinc. But relief is in sight, now that Congress has approved legislation authorizing the buyout of the mine-scarred town.
“Quite frankly, it looks like a war zone,” said Kansas Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus.
Neglected and forgotten
Driving into the small city in southern Cherokee County is like stepping onto the surface of the moon.
There are no people, no vegetation, just giant gray mountains of mining waste, known as chat, stretching toward the sky.
Red-tinged water runs down the streets.
There’s no sign of children playing.
The only visible traffic are the giant bulldozers and dump trucks, slowly chipping away at the chat piles, evidence of the Environmental Protection Agency’s on-going cleanup.
Residents live each day with the threat of the ground collapsing underneath them due to the extensive undermining that left the area unstable.
The community also watched as their neighbors to the south in Picher, Okla., were evacuated to safer ground. That caused property values in Treece to plummet even further.
Residents said they felt neglected and forgotten. The situation seemed hopeless.
“We’re kind of in between a rock and a hard spot,” Treece Mayor Bill Blunk said during a November visit.
But now there is new hope for the residents of the troubled town, hope coming in the form of a $3.5 million buyout by the federal government for the community of Treece.
“The people of Treece, Kansas, faced a unique and urgent threat from the legacy of pollution in their community,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said. “The EPA has determined that relocation is the primary option to address the concerns of Treece residents, just as it was in neighboring Picher, Oklahoma.”
The EPA made the determination that Treece residents should be relocated shortly after Congress approved the measure in late October.
“We’re talking about $3.5 million to relocate about 100 people and give them a new lease on life,” said U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. “You couldn’t go there without seeing the desperation on the people’s faces. Let’s get this done.”
For Rodney and Heather Woodcock, the announcement that the buyout went through brought a sense of deja vu to their family of four. They were forced to leave their home in Picher four years ago, when the state of Oklahoma offered to buy the properties of families with young children, during the first phase of the buyout in Picher.
The Woodcocks owned 40 acres of land in Treece, so they relocated there.
“When we got here the kids’ lead levels started going up,” Rodney Woodcock said. “I got ahold of the EPA in Kansas and they came out and tested.”
The Woodcock’s 4-year-old son, Ryan, had a blood-lead level of 8, and 6-year-old Haden registered a 10, the level at which health officials classify lead poisoning.
The EPA came out and replaced the soil in the Woodcocks’ yard and both children’s lead levels have since decreased to a 3. Still, the Woodcocks say no level is safe.
“It’s not going to be any different anywhere else,” Rodney said.
The family doesn’t particularly want to leave their home for a second time, but they’re left with few options.
“Most of my family is leaving,” Rodney said. “All of our family pretty much moved away. We don’t know where we want to go. I mean, do you stay here? This is where I grew up.”
Ella and Denny Johnston dreamed of retiring on their 100 acres of land on the outskirts of Treece.
“We’ve lived here all of our lives,” said Denny Johnston, 61. “I’m not sure we’re going to move.”
From their recliners, the couple can look out their window and see the more than 15 acres of contaminated material on their property. The Johnstons also had two mine shafts that up until recently were unsealed. One measured more than 200 feet deep.
Still, this is their home and they doubt the government will offer to buy all of their land.
“If they would buy all of it, we’d probably take it,” Denny Johnston said. “But I don’t think they’re going to have that kind of money.”
Ella, 60, said the two have watched as Picher went downhill. They hate to see the same fate for their town.
“We’ve lived here our whole lives and we get lost here now,” she said. “There’s nothing left.”
She recalls a happier time, before people were aware of the health problems caused by the waste from the mines.
“We’d take our kids over on the chats and go sledding,” Ella said. “People used them like recreation areas. Dune buggies would come. On the weekends, there would probably be 100 dune buggies on the chat piles. To remember how it was when you were a kid, it was different times.”
Ella said she’s disappointed that Treece will soon be abandoned.
“I’d just like to stay here,” Ella Johnston said. “But we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
Carol Wallin lives in Treece in her home of 20 years. She’s a grandmother on a fixed income, who despite the pending buyout, has no intentions of going anywhere.
“I wish they would just leave me alone,” Wallin said. “In my mind, I don’t think they’re going to give us enough money to buy property somewhere else.”
Wallin said she watched friends in Picher go into debt to buy new houses after the buyout there. Her home is paid for.
“Where am I going to move to?” she said. “This whole area is contaminated, from Miami, Okla., to clear past Joplin, Mo. Where am I going to go?”
Despite the fact that her 4-month-old granddaughter had one of the highest lead levels in Treece, Wallin is content to stay put.
“I know my house is not the best in the world, but I’m happy,” she said.
Treece Mayor Bill Blunk walks into the town’s one-room City Hall and signs a check. The 50-year-old has been mayor since 1999, and he undoubtedly has one of the toughest jobs in the city.
“I’ve been trying to keep this community together for the last five years,” Blunk said. “The city doesn’t have enough money coming in to pay for employees to do general cleanup, so I do it. I do it all myself, just to try to keep the community together.”
Blunk was raised in Picher and moved to Treece in 1992.
“All my life, I was between Picher and Treece,” he said. “They bought up our front yard. Now they’re working on the back.”
Blunk said the majority of the town’s residents are “ecstatic” about the buyout, but the news also strikes a sentimental chord.
“It saddens me that the mining companies weren’t forced to refill what they took out, and it caused a lot of damage,” Blunk said. “Now we’re forced out of our homes. It’s a voluntary buyout, but what do you do? You don’t want to wake up in a big hole the next morning. It saddens me to see the two communities the way there were at one time, to become what they are today.”
Blunk continues to go about his job as mayor, knowing he will most likely be the last man to hold that post.
“I believe it’s May of 2011 when I’d go back for re-election, and I don’t think this town will still be here,” he said.
Kansas Rep. Doug Gatewood has been working for his constituents in Treece since the town passed a resolution in 2006 seeking his help.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet victory because this is something you don’t like to have to get involved in,” Gatewood said. “But, understandably, the people wanted an opportunity to relocate.”
The next step in the process is appointing a trust to handle the money. The appraisal process could start soon after.
“It is voluntary and there have been a few citizens, three to be exact, who contacted me and said we don’t want to leave,” Gatewood said. “We’ll do all we can to make sure they have the services that they need to stay, if that’s their desire.”
Gatewood estimates the buyout process will take between 12 and 18 months.
“It’s pretty daunting to think they’re going to dissolve the charter of a town,” Gatewood said. “But at this point, I think that it’s best.”