Wichita Residents of Treece, Kan., moved a step closer to being moved out of their lead-polluted town this week when the U.S. Senate approved an amendment to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to buy out and shut down the community.
The amendment was attached to the Interior and Environment Appropriations Act by Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback, both Kansas Republicans, and James Inhofe, R-Okla.
The bill passed the Senate on Thursday evening.
The Treece amendment “represents one of the rare instances of true bipartisan support,” Roberts said.
It calls on the EPA to “consider all appropriate criteria, including cost-effectiveness” relating to the buyout and relocation of Treece residents because of health risks posed by chat.
Chat is lead- and zinc-contaminated mining waste, millions of tons of which are piled up on hundreds of acres in and around Treece.
Resident Denny Johnston said “that’s some good news right there” when he learned that the amendment passed the Senate. “I’m kind of glad to see it going in the right direction.”
Johnston is Treece’s expert on chat piles, sinkholes and health hazards and has guided tours for EPA officials, members of Congress, the media and others several times.
Treece City Council member Tonya Kirk, a buyout supporter, said she’s “excited, kind of nervous” that it appears to be moving forward after years of inactivity.
Her husband, Wayne, works at a warehouse in Miami, Okla. But the family wants to stay in Kansas, possibly in nearby Columbus, Riverton or Baxter Springs, she said.
“We’ve been thinking about that a lot,” she said.
The appropriations bill will go to a conference committee that will work out differences between House and Senate legislation. Roberts said he does not foresee any trouble with the Treece amendment.
It is estimated that buying out the population of Treece, which has dwindled to about 100 people, would cost $3 million to $3.5 million.
EPA officials had expressed some concern over doing that without congressional approval, which they had when they bought out the neighboring town of Picher, Okla.
Roberts said the amendment “provides the framework for the EPA to move forward,” and that no further legislative action should be required.
Roberts met Thursday at his office with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who recently dispatched three of her top deputies to Treece to tour the community, meet with residents and evaluate the situation.
“I believe that was a real eye-opener for everybody,” Roberts said.
A line on the map
Treece and Picher face the same hazards of pollution and ground subsidence left behind by a century of mining.
But Treece was excluded from the Picher buyout because it is on the north side of the state line and in a different EPA administrative region.
The EPA office in Dallas supported the buyout of Picher. The agency’s Kansas City, Kan., office resisted buying out Treece.
Inhofe largely engineered the Picher buyout and has been working with the Kansas senators to get similar treatment for Treece.
Both communities were once thriving mining towns that withered after the mines shut down in the early 1970s.
The towns were extensively undermined, and the landscape is pocked with abandoned shafts, sinkholes and cave-ins that are flooded with polluted water.
EPA officials overseeing Treece have said they think they removed most of the danger to the populace about nine years ago, when they tested every yard in the community and replaced the soil in those where the lead content was high.
But Treece residents argued that they were still exposed to toxic dust from trucks and loaders used in the EPA’s ongoing cleanup effort.
Almost everything gone
They also said the abandonment of Picher — now a veritable ghost town — had the side effect of rendering Treece unsalvageable as well.
Treece had relied on Picher for jobs, shopping, recreation and some public services, including fire protection.
Earlier this month, the cable TV company that had previously served Treece through facilities in Picher sent crews out to reclaim the wires from both communities.
Federal and state officials conducted two days of testing this month to determine whether the residents suffer from lead poisoning.
It was the first comprehensive testing done in Treece. About eight out of 10 residents responded.
Several residents said their initial test results showed higher-than-normal levels of lead in their blood.
Results of a more definitive laboratory analysis are not yet available.