Treece residents question government's slow action
13 December 2009, 12:00 a.m.
Treece The mines didn’t stop at the state line, but the federal government’s action did.
The roughly 100 residents of Treece watched in 2006 as their neighbors immediately to the south in Picher, Okla., were offered money for their homes and land in exchange for relocating to safer ground, due to the threat of cave-ins and contamination from nearly a century of mining in what’s known as the Tri-State Mining District.
“They felt very left out, because the only thing that separates us from Picher is one inch, and that is State Line Road,” Treece Mayor Bill Blunk said last month. “This used to be Treece, Okla., according to our recorded deeds, and they think we should’ve been included in that buyout at that time.”
Instead, Treece residents, already dealing with a desperate situation, had their lifeline cut off.
When Picher was bought out, Treece residents lost their schools, post office, fire department, grocery store and gas station. They were left living in a contaminated wasteland, isolated from almost all essential services.
Many residents were left wondering why it took the Environmental Protection Agency so long to take action.
“There are a lot of artificial borders that definitely were an obstacle,” said state Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus. “It was certainly rough to get the communication going.”
Gatewood said shortly after the Journal-World and Channel 6 did a series of stories in March 2007 highlighting the problems facing the small town in Cherokee County, people started to take notice.
“Mike Belt was from this area and called this area home,” Gatewood said. “He’s really the reason this happened.”
Belt, a former reporter for the Journal-World, who died last April, and Thad Allender produced the award-winning series “Mining’s Legacy: A Scar on Kansas.”
“He saw this, and he helped us get our message out,” Gatewood said. “Certainly after that series came out, I started getting calls from Washington and the Washington Post picked up on it. The media did a good job on this, of highlighting the issue and getting our word out.”
Kansas’ congressional delegation also took notice.
“The big effort was to get somebody out from Washington to say, ‘Hey, wake up. We have a real problem here in Treece,’” said U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
Roberts said the problem stemmed from a difference in opinion between the EPA’s region six, based in Dallas and region seven, located in Kansas City, Kan.
According to the EPA, a law passed in 2007 at the urging of Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma removed obstacles to the EPA considering relocation on the Oklahoma side, managed by region six, but did not apply to the Treece subsite, under the jurisdiction of region seven.
“I made the speech,” Roberts said. “I said, this will not stand. We’re not going to put up with this.”
Roberts and former Congresswoman Nancy Boyda attempted to secure federal funds for a buyout of Treece in 2007, to no avail.
But in August 2009, Roberts, along with Sen. Sam Brownback and U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., who defeated Boyda in 2008, convinced top EPA officials to tour Treece and view the environmental damage firsthand.
In late October, Congress passed legislation securing the $3.5 million buyout for the residents of Treece.
“We’re glad to be responsive to the people of Treece, and provide them with solutions to these exceptionally challenging circumstances,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said. “It is our hope that this will give them the opportunity to raise their children, run their businesses, and get on with their lives, free of the burdens of pollution and environmental degradation.”
“Seeing is believing,” Gatewood said, “and that certainly was the case with our congressional delegation and the EPA. Quite frankly, it looks like a war zone. It’s just a rough area because of the scars that the mining legacy has left on it.”