Southeast Kansas towns, scarred by mining, still show pain as they deal with environmental problems

Knifemaker Robert Edge in Galena has felt and heard movements he believes to be from a collapsing mineshaft beneath his store downtown.

? 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.