Minings Legacy

A Scar on Kansas

22 February 2009, 12:00 a.m.

— Robert Edge thinks there is an abandoned mine tunnel underneath his downtown Galena knife and antique store.

“I’ve heard sounds. I’ve felt movements,” he said. “If you’ve ever felt that before, you don’t forget it.”

It’s been more than two years since the ground moved and parted across the street from Edge. A sinkhole developed over an old lead and zinc mine, partially collapsing a brick apartment building and damaging the Green Parrot bar. The bar owners barely escaped safely from their apartments before the collapse.

Sinkholes from abandoned mines have plagued Galena for years. Three small, but deep, ones developed earlier this month near city hall, at a mobile home court and on a street. They were blocked off then filled and covered a few days later.

But city officials are still trying to address the overall problem of how to locate and fill in the numerous underground mine voids before the ground above them collapses.

Two years ago the Journal-World examined the environmental problems decades of mining for lead, zinc and coal left on southeastern Kansas, mainly in Galena and Treece. Treece also is undermined and has pollution problems, despite millions of dollars in cleanup projects overseen by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

People in Treece, population 140, are seeking a federal buyout their properties so they can move to safer ground. But a bill in Congress that would pay for that was never passed.

Meanwhile, in Picher, Okla., another former mining town, the population continues to dwindle as residents take advantage of a federal buyout that was approved for them a few years ago. There are blocks of mostly abandoned houses and former businesses. The buyout also includes the adjoining Oklahoma burgs of Cardin and Hockerville.

Only 150 people remain in Picher, city clerk Carolyn Elmore said. In 2000 the town’s population was 1,640, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This is the last year the town’s schools will be open. In May 2008, a tornado hit the southern edge of Picher, wiping out blocks of houses and killing a reported six people.

Galena seeks solutions

Galena city leaders two years ago thought they had found a solution to the sinkhole problems. It was awarded a $250,000 federal grant to help pay for mapping its abandoned mines. But once the city read the grant’s fine print, it was rejected. The city planned to drill small holes in the ground at locations downtown, near schools and elsewhere to see if underground voids could be found and how far below the surface they were.

The federal government wanted a certified drill operator to do the drilling, something the state of Kansas doesn’t require, Mayor Dale Oglesby said. A full-time, on-site engineering firm had to be involved. There was just too much “red tape” for the city to deal with, Oglesby said.

“By the time they loaded up all the things they wanted, the city didn’t have that kind of money,” he said.

But Galena thinks it has found another, lower-cost way of attacking the sinkhole problem. The city plans to work with a local utility company to find the underground voids, concentrating their efforts downtown and near schools.

City work crews watch for signs of developing sinkholes such as ground depressions. When those areas are located the plan is to grout the site by pumping a fly ash and cement mixture into the void.

Sinkholes usually develop after long dry periods followed by heavy rain. Large sinkholes that open up and collapse buildings are not common, but smaller holes are, Oglesby said.

The remains of the bar and apartment building were cleared last year. Oglesby hopes the block will be redeveloped.

“But you can’t do that with the ground moving,” he said. “First you have to stabilize it.”

Galena residents, such as store owner Edge, are used to sinkholes and say they are not afraid of them.

“You’ll have small warning signs. I have a good eye for them,” Edge, who is blind in one eye, said with a chuckle.

Treece buyout still sought

Last week in Treece, EPA contractors were back at work clearing out the remains of massive piles of mine tailings. The tailings are waste matter removed from mines and piled high like small mountains during the decades of lead and zinc mining. The cleanup has been ongoing for several years.

Most mining ended some 30 years ago. There also are deep open mine shafts and ground collapses. Some of those collapses cover areas as large as a football field.

Treece residents say no matter how much the EPA spends on cleanup the pollution problem will remain. Water flows through the underground mines, picks up pollutants and carries them to the surface. Residents have been upset that they weren’t included in the federal buyout of Picher, which is just on the other side of the state line.

More than two years ago state Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus, urged then U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to introduce a bill that would create a buyout for Treece. A $6 million buyout bill was introduced but it died at the end of the last congressional session.

When Picher is gone, Treece residents worry what will happen to phone service and electricity, some of which passes through their neighbor to the south.

“It’s just very frustrating,” Treece city clerk Pam Pruit said.

Treece resident Gayla Woodcock said she has health problems and physicians are trying to determine if they are a result of lead poisoning.

Residents also worry that the economic recession could cause further delays in getting money from Washington, D.C.

“It’s a vicious circle and we are right in the middle of it,” Woodcock said. “It’s a mess and we can’t really push anybody’s hands because we aren’t big enough.”

Boyda was defeated last year in her bid for re-election in the 2nd District by Republican Lynn Jenkins. Representatives in Jenkins and Roberts’ offices said the two are studying options for Treece. A buyout bill might be reintroduced. They also will see if there are funds in President Obama’s federal stimulus package that could be used.

The state had allocated $680,000 as matching funds for the federal buyout. That allocation is no more but Gatewood said he’s confident it can be obtained again.

“We will come up with it if federal money is there,” he said.

Picher being abandoned

On a cold afternoon last week Ron Thompson, of Joplin, Mo., and his daughter, Paige, watched as two people Thompson hired worked to remove an old pickup truck from the tornado ravaged neighborhood in Picher. Thompson’s grandmother once lived in a house there but had been dead for a couple of years by the time the tornado destroyed the home and dropped part of a tree onto the truck. She would never have taken a buyout and left Picher, Thompson said.

“No, absolutely not,” he said. “She was pretty strong-minded. It’s really sad what’s happened here.”

Elmore, the city clerk, also feels that sadness. She has lived in Picher all of her life and she wasn’t sure when she would be moving out. City hall might be closed at the end of the year.

“It’s been real heart-wrenching,” she said. “The tornado added insult and injury to this little town and its people.”

As many as 10 to 15 people have indicated that they would remain in Picher after everybody else has left, Elmore said.

Return to:
Mining’s Legacy

Video interview

Geologist Jim McCauley

Photo slideshow

"A bad way to make a living"

Video interview

Former miner Walter Wettstein

Photo gallery

A landscape transformed

Video interview

Dave Drake, EPA project manager

Photo gallery

A tale of two cities

Video interview

Picher resident Jon Finn


River City Weekly

Video interview

Treece Mayor Bill Blunk

Video interview

Senator Pat Roberts

Video interview

Representative Doug Gatewood


KS 9 years, 2 months ago

Call BO! He will give you all the money you need.

Sean Livingstone 9 years, 2 months ago

"KS (Anonymous) says… Call BO! He will give you all the money you need."

The trend of giving money away began with George Bush. Why don't you say it? He gave us a lot of money to spent but economists found that only 20% actually went into the economy.

Stimulus package is nothing new to this nation. It had been used to stimulate the economy in the past. Don't let your head covers your eyes.

Chris Ogle 9 years, 2 months ago

You’ll have small warning signs. I have a good eye for them,” Edge, who is blind in one eye, said with a chuckle.

I like this guy....pretty sharp. Looks kinda like the man in the movie Slingblade.

Sharon Aikins 9 years, 2 months ago

As I read it, he sells knives and antiques. Didn't see anywhere that he makes them but he must have an Edge somewhere.

After the mines closed, a lot of little towns in that area just disappeared. There are probably only five-six towns that I can think of with populations of 10,000 or more. The rest are tiny burgs struggling to keep going and keep schools open.

baxtersprings 9 years, 2 months ago

I'm sad to see so many make jokes about the economy. i was born and still live in baxter springs, ks and we are the small town right between galena and picher and these towns are our friends and neighbors. No one deserves to have thier town shut down. my grandfather spent times in these mines and this was our way of living in this community. i think your jouranlist did a fantastic job on this and appreciate it. My son is at school there, thats why i watch your paper on line, keep up the good work!

Sharon Aikins 9 years, 2 months ago

Hey, Baxter. Believe me, I wasn't making fun as I grew up there. We used to play you in sports in high school. It is sad what has happened to that part of the state as more of us leave. I had a friend whose father worked the mines and after they shut down, her hometown of Cockrell disappeared. I too grew up in a small SE Kansas town that has struggled for years to keep going as most of it's graduates leave for richer fields. While there's not a lot of wealth in that part of the state, there are some really good people who work hard, live simply and have loyalty to their towns.

baxtersprings 9 years, 2 months ago

it wasnt your comment, but thanks. i wish we could save picher. its such a part of us just like galena. Thanks!!!!!

Eric Gruber 9 years, 2 months ago

Geez. I'm from Baxter as well (and was born in the hospital there when it was still around). Nice to meet you all.

TacoBob 9 years, 2 months ago

Can't stop thinking about that movie called "Tremors". The knife guy could take them all on....

Chris Ogle 9 years, 2 months ago

baxtersprings- sorry, didn't mean to offend you. You seem to be a very positive person.... maybe I should take lessons.

olmsted78 9 years, 2 months ago

an altered landscape for sure. Spent the past weekend near West Mineral @ Mined Land Wildlife Area. We drove some back roads, saw the ruggedness and bleakness of the place. Sad to hear about the demise of some of these communities, but an interesting history. Hopefully they can rehab these scars from an industrial era bygone. I believe that is the idea behind the MLWA. There they have converted former mine shafts and pits into hundreds of fishing lakes, re-introduced lots of native flora and fauna as well. Seems like positive "re-development" or anti-development, maybe more appropriately. Anyway, the wildlife area/park attracted a couple from Lawrence down there...and we didn't even hunt or fish! So, hopefully more will follow suit and spend a few much needed bucks down there while they're at it. we'll go back. good luck.

Cait McKnelly 9 years, 2 months ago

My family has a deep, rich and long history with Galena. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are all buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. My great-grandfather, Madison Bennet, was at one time sheriff of Galena back when it was a mining boom town and actually big enough to have a street car system. My dad's cousin inherited, owned and ran the local funeral home until he retired. The pain has been with the town for a long time. My grandmother's first husband was a miner in the lead mines. He died, somewhere in the 19teens, in his late thirties from "tuberculosis". Most likely it was a combination of silicosis and lead poisoning. Of the six children she bore him, two died as small children, one became deaf and another died as a young adult from kidney failure. Growing up in the presence of mass amounts of lead is not conducive to a healthy upbringing. She remarried to my grandfather and escaped to Kansas City where she had four more children that all grew to healthy adulthood and died of old age. I spent time there as a child in the '50's, going down in the summer with my parents to visit relatives. The landscape was alien, covered in tailing piles and open strip pits. We blindly fished and swam in the strip pits and played on the tailing piles, totally unaware of the danger they presented. Now the entire area is an EPA supersite. SE Kansas is a monument to greed; greed that killed and maimed people, tore apart families and left scars on the earth that will take generations to heal. Consider this its obituary.

dpowers 9 years, 2 months ago

Good comments, cait! This is another sad story of corporate greed. There are a million of them. Corporations come into communities, get tax incentives, pollute the communities and then leave behind a trail of contamination and destruction, of which the taxpayers are left to clean up. Why doesn't the right-wing ever complain about this?

The same has been done here in Lawrence. Farmlnad Industries went bankrupt and left Lawrence with contaminated property for the taxpayers to clean up, while their executives and stockholders made off fine!

What a bunch of bull#!

blindrabbit 9 years, 2 months ago

Sad situation down there! Environmental shortsightedness; wonder what future generations will say about the likewise blindness of Kansas Legislature about to approve outdated coal burning units in Holcomb! We need the $, the future will bare the real costs.

bananawoman 7 years, 9 months ago

A few years my hubby and I drove through Baxter Springs and we fell in love with the area - in fact we saw a house for sale and called the realtor with the intent of buying it...unfortunately, the owner had decided to let a friend move in and restore it so he had taken it off the market. This is a beautiful area and deserved better than to be destroyed by something done in the past that no one was appearantly aware would cause so much pain in the future. We need to become smarter and more protective of our environment so that our children's children's children do not suffer the same way. I hope that something can be done to recover this area. We went through Coffeyville next and were appaled by the houses destroyed by the flooding - I believe it was from the reservoir. Although we live in Alaska, we grow up in Kansas and Oklahoma and plan to retire to the Southeastern part of Kansas. Good luck to you all.

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