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View Full Version : A town begs the government to help it disappear.


netscape check two
09-15-2009, 12:23 AM
TREECE, Kan. — Mayor Bill Blunk sees no reason for sugar-coating his opinion when asked to describe this town. Almost anywhere else on the map, such bluntness could cost a politician re-election. But not here. Mr. Blunk has the near-unanimous support of the population, 140 people or so, who are perhaps singular among residents of municipalities in that they all want out of theirs.

“I’d be happy to go as anyone,” said Randall Barr, a retired sand company worker. “You can’t do anything with this land. What good is it?”

For most of the early part of the 20th century, this little city in the southeast corner of Kansas had the feel of a rollicking boom town, its prosperity coming from land rich in lead, zinc and iron ore. Part of a vast mining district where Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma meet, Treece and its twin city across the Oklahoma state line, Picher, became the unofficial capitals of a zone that in its heyday produced more than $20 billion worth of ore — much of it used for weaponry to fight World Wars I and II.

But when the last of the mines closed in the 1970s, Treece was left sitting in a toxic waste dump of lead-tinged dust, contaminated soil and sinkholes. On a hot summer day, children can be seen riding their bikes around enormous mounds of chat — pulverized rock laced with lead and iron. It is the waste product left over from mining that is the cause of so many problems here. Uncontrolled, it blows in the wind.

Treece and Picher — which is the much larger of the two towns, once home to 20,000 people and separated from Treece by only a gravel road, the state line — became part of adjacent Superfund sites that the Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to clean since the 1980s.

In Picher, the remediation of the land has proved daunting. In a move without many precedents, the federal government decided to buy out and relocate nearly the entire population, which had dwindled to 1,800 by 2000, leaving a dusty ghost town where the social and economic hub of the area used to be.

But the buyouts stopped at the Oklahoma line. Treece remains similarly contaminated, but now even more isolated. Officials in Kansas have been practically begging the federal government to move Treece’s impoverished people, mostly the children and grandchildren of old miners, but to no avail.

“You can turn and see one block away is Oklahoma, unsafe,” said Pam Pruitt, the city clerk. “They got bought out, and we didn’t? It’s incredibly unfair. The people here, if they wanted to leave, they can’t. They can’t sell their property. They can’t get bank loans to fix them up. They’re just stuck.”

The E.P.A. does not see it that way. The agency favors rehabilitation of the tainted soil in Treece, which mainly entails cleansing the top layer of sediment.

Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas and a staunch advocate of the buyouts, said he likened the strategy to “throwing a fancy rug over a hole in the floor.” He believes that it would be more efficient to simply move the people, which would cost an estimated $3.5 million.

Nonetheless, the agency says that it can accomplish the soil cleansing in 10 years and that Treece residents are safe in the meantime. In Picher, however, government scientists found that extensive waste deposits could not be remediated for several decades, and that residents would be at risk during the cleanup, hence the need for government-assisted relocation.

“They are two independent sites from the way we look at it,” said Mathy Stanislaus, the assistant administrator for solid waste at the E.P.A.

Mr. Stanislaus said that in Picher, the residential areas were interspersed with mining waste sites, but that in Treece, the residential areas were away from pollutants. Still, he said, the agency is “taking a hard look” at the residents’ concerns and will continue to evaluate their situation.

Such explanations do nothing to ease the worry of the people in Treece. In addition to living in fear of lead and other poisons, they lost their stores, gas stations, some public services, jobs and their social outlet with the demise of Picher.

That town ceased to be an official entity on Sept. 1. Only a few die-hard residents remain, unconvinced of the health risks or unhappy with their buyout offers.

They live in a gothic landscape of varying degrees of disrepair. A few residents walked away from well-kept properties just last week, while most others took buyouts years ago, leaving dozens of houses to collapse upon themselves. Stray dogs wander. Faded signs announce places that are no longer: the Picher Mining Museum, the Church of the Nazarene, a 24-hour truck stop.

“I had a perfectly good house,” said Vickey Phillips, who moved out of Picher four years ago. “But they said it was full of lead.”

The psychological impact of Picher’s move on Treece has been overwhelming.

“They are in essence one town,” said Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, who grew up north of Treece and is pushing for the buyouts. “Yes, there’s a state line that divides them, but that’s a man-made distinction. It is very much one town.”

About 100 miles northeast of Tulsa, Treece is entirely residential, with the only public building being its two-room clapboard City Hall. Most of the population, which has a poverty level more than twice the national average, is feeling increasingly depressed about the isolation and a sense of creeping abandonment.

“There’s nothing here but a City Hall, honestly,” said Regina Palmer, 24.

A 1993 study found that 34 percent of the children tested in Picher had blood lead levels exceeding the point at which there is a risk of brain or nervous system damage. Government efforts to do something to clean the chat piles began in earnest then. But similar studies have never been done in Treece.

Only now is the E.P.A. testing the air quality and lead levels in residents’ blood. Agency officials arrived in town last week.

“It’s about 10 years too late,” Mayor Blunk said.

Glenda Powell is among those hoping for a buyout. “My father was one of the last miners,” she said. “He died of cancer, and so did my mom — bad lungs. This has always been home, and I don’t know where we’d go, just a place where we can breathe.”

-http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/14/us/14kansas.html?no_interstitial