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Town over mines could soon dry up

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, August 13, 2009, at 11:27 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, Dec. 18, 2009, at 10:17 p.m.

Photos

Editor's note: This story originally was published on Kansas.com on June 28, 2009.

And you know the sun's setting fast

And just like they say,

Nothing good ever lasts.

-- Iris DeMent, "Our Town"

TREECE - With a shining past and a troubled present, just about everyone agrees this town has no future. A century of mining that built this southeast Kansas town and brought decades of prosperity is long since over, leaving a legacy of heavy-metal-tainted water and soil, surrounded by a lunarlike landscape of gray mine waste.

Even the ground beneath the town can't be trusted; the tiny city was extensively undermined for the metals and the landscape is pocked with cave-ins and uncapped shafts filled with brackish, brownish water that's unfit for human contact.

About 100 survivors hope the federal government will buy them out and settle them elsewhere, as it did with neighboring Picher, Okla.

They have a powerful ally in Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is prepared to file a bill

in Congress if the Environmental Protection Agency won't spend stimulus money to buy out Treece.

But EPA officials say they've removed most of the environmental hazards from the residential area.

While they sympathize with the plight Treece finds itself in, they say they're not legally empowered to address what are now primarily economic and social problems.

-- -- --

I'm leaving tomorrow but I don't wanna go.

I love you, my town, you'll always live in my soul . . .

Most of the people here are descendants of the miners and have lived with the pollution all their lives.

Many would probably have been willing to ride it out while the EPA conducts a 10-year cleanup. But the desertion of Picher has been a body blow to Treece.

The Picher school district laid off almost all its employees and auctioned off everything - chairs, desks, football uniforms - two weeks ago. The Post Office closes July 6; City Hall on Sept. 1.

The loss of Picher's jobs, shopping, recreation and public services has rendered Treece unsalvageable, said Mayor Bill Blunk, who has been in office nearly 10 years and expects to be Treece's last mayor.

"If I could afford it, I'd move tomorrow," Blunk said. "I see no future. If they don't buy us out . . . my term will be up in 2011 and I don't think we'll be incorporated at that time."

The average Treece home is worth $10,000 and the city budget has dwindled to $25,000. City Hall is open only six days a month so residents can pay water bills.

Ask just about anyone here what the last good thing to happen in Treece was and the answer is a long pause and an are-you-kidding-me look.

The mayor's no exception. Finally, he recalls the pumping of the city's sewage lagoon in 2004.

For the past decade, Blunk has been holding things together as well as he can. When the City Hall yard needs mowing, he mows it. Ditto for the banks of the sewage lagoon.

It's a labor of love, more than anything else. He's paid $1 a year.

"You try to get residents to help out by cleaning their own alleys," he said. "Some do, some don't. If we get hit with a hard, heavy repair bill, something I can't do myself, we'll be in trouble."

-- -- --

Now I sit on the porch and watch the lightning-bugs fly.

But I can't see too good, I got tears in my eyes . . .

Treece sits atop what was once a rich body of lead and zinc ore stretching beneath the corners where Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri meet.

From 1850 to 1950, the 2,500-square-mile mining region provided half the zinc and 10 percent of the lead produced in the United States, according to a 2008 Cherokee County Restoration Plan.

The big mining companies primarily used a process called "room and pillar," which involved digging out room-size holes underground and leaving similar- size pillars of ore to hold up the roof.

That created huge piles of spent ore covering hundreds of acres surrounding Treece and Picher.

Most of it is called "chat," crushed, contaminated rock ranging from face-powder-fine to gravel-size particles.

Eventually, the ore began to run out and the big mining companies moved on.

Around the 1950s, they were replaced by "gougers," who would go underground to scrape out the last of the ore, much of which was in the pillars.

The mines were generally below the water table and had to be pumped constantly to keep from flooding. The last of the pumps were turned off in the early 1970s.

Now, no one knows exactly what is beneath Treece and how many of the pillars have been compromised.

And the flooding created another hazard.

Where shafts were uncapped or mines caved in, the water came to the surface.

One large cave-in northwest of Treece became a popular swimming hole. Kids would return from swimming with reddened skin, usually assumed to be sunburn.

"What it is is the chemicals in the water. . . . Those kids didn't have any idea what they were swimming in," said Denny Johnston, a longtime resident and local expert on sinkholes who recently guided Roberts on a tour of the town.

As Treece's buildings and trailers were abandoned, a criminal element began to squat in the ruins.

At one point, the city had 17 illegal methamphetamine labs, although it was able to shut them down with help from the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department, Blunk said.

Vandalism is a problem. Vacant lots are filled with broken glass, and the few remaining street signs are marred with graffiti.

The town is dotted with burned-out buildings and trailers, overgrowing with vegetation.

City Clerk Pam Pruitt said she had asked the firefighters from Picher to let them burn to the ground because there's no money to clear lots and haul away wreckage. But the firefighters said they had to put the fires out, she said.

On Main Street, Johnston recalled what Treece used to be, pointing out two former grocery stores, a movie theater and at least three bars and restaurants.

All are gone. The only active business is a tiny shop where Charles Moreland and his wife, Jean Ann, salvage and regroove used tractor-trailer tires.

As the couple work, their 3-year-old daughter, Acey, keeps them company, blowing bubbles to amuse herself.

Charles Moreland, 45, has lived his entire life in the Treece area. He owns 22 pieces of property, most of which he inherited from his father.

His wife worries that if a buyout comes, they will drift apart from extended family, most of whom are in Treece.

"We wanted to raise her (Acey) here, but with everything closing down, it doesn't look like that's going to happen," she said.

She pointed to her husband. "He's ready to go," she said, as he nodded.

"I'm ready to go," chimed in Acey.

-- -- --

Go on now and kiss it goodbye,

But hold on to your lover,

'Cause your heart's bound to die . . .

A recent study by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment estimated it would cost $3.5 million to empty Treece of people, and Roberts is pressing the EPA to spend federal economic stimulus money to do that.

When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson visited Kansas City last week, Roberts invited her to tour Treece. She declined.

Roberts said the EPA's cleanup plan for Treece is a waste of taxpayer money. Trying to cap the sinkholes and shafts, some hundreds of feet deep, is akin to "throwing a fancy oriental rug over a hole in the floor," he said.

People both north and south of the state line face the same risks from pollution and cave-ins, Roberts said. He said the only difference is a political divide.

Oklahoma is in the jurisdiction of the EPA's Dallas office, which approved the Picher buyout. Kansas is regulated through the EPA's Kansas City office, which opposes buyouts for Treece.

Except for signs on the highway saying "Leaving Kansas, Come Again" and "Welcome to Oklahoma, Native America," the two towns are indistinguishable.

In fact, most of the deeds in Treece show the properties were originally platted as part of Picher, until a 1918 survey moved the state line a couple of hundred yards.

Roberts said he wants to work with the EPA to buy out Treece. Failing that, he said, he's prepared to try to work a bill through Congress.

EPA officials on both sides of the state line said they could not respond directly to Roberts' complaints. But they did say significant differences justified buying out Picher, but not Treece.

For one thing, Picher has a lot more chat to deal with than Treece - 50 million to 60 million tons compared with 6 million to 8 million - said Sam Coleman, Superfund director in the EPA's Dallas office.

Also, the chat fields in Picher are intertwined with the town, so people had to go past them to go about their daily lives, Coleman said.

And, he said, one of the best ways to get rid of chat is to mix it into asphalt or concrete. A local company has a contract to collect and ship chat around the country for road and building projects.

Emptying Picher of residents will make it easier to haul chat to centralized piles for shipping, Coleman said.

In Treece, the cleanup effort is taking a different direction. The chat around Treece is less commercially viable because it's the wrong consistency, EPA officials said.

The plan there is to dig out small chat piles and move the material to bigger piles. Those eventually will be covered with 18 inches of clay and topsoil and replanted to a natural state, said EPA project manager David Drake.

The land that's cleared of chat will be usable for farming and ranching. The covered piles will look like native grassland, Drake said.

Also, children tend to be most susceptible to lead poisoning because they play in the dirt and put their hands in their mouths a lot.

Nine years ago, the EPA addressed that by testing all the yards in Treece and replacing the topsoil at about 40 homes. Drake said that removed the major exposure hazard.

"There's no burning risk or need or rationale to be moving people out of there," he said.

There has been no comprehensive lead testing on the children of Treece. But Drake said results from a similar cleanup in nearby Galena reduced the percentage of children with elevated lead levels from about 11 percent to about 6 percent.

The agency thinks the results would be about the same in Treece, he said.

Drake said he feels for the struggles the people of Treece are going through, but the EPA is only authorized by law to deal with environmental hazards.

"We really can't just expend to do that (buyout) because of economic and social issues," he said.

-- -- --

I buried my Mama and I buried my Pa.

They sleep up the street beside that pretty brick wall.

I bring 'em flowers about every day,

but I just gotta cry when I think what they'd say . . .

For now, the only way out of Treece is to walk away.

Selling a house is next to impossible. Banks won't lend to potential buyers or make home-improvement loans to existing residents.

One resident, Robert Toney, has put almost all his possessions up for sale in an ongoing garage sale to try to raise enough to move to Missouri.

Wes Woodcock, the pastor at the Jesus Name Pentecostal Church, says he gets eight to 10 people at his Sunday services.

"It ain't very many," he said.

Woodcock, 39, was diagnosed two years ago with multiple sclerosis. While no one knows what causes the disease, Woodcock thinks his environment may play a role.

He and his mother, Marilyn, can tick off a list of other family members who have had health problems. Marilyn Woodcock said cancer claimed her husband's mother, her sister-in-law and a cousin. Another cousin is fighting kidney disease.

"They all lived here," Marilyn Woodcock said. "It's been young people, too."

Back at City Hall, Pruitt said she hopes Roberts can eventually persuade EPA administrator Jackson to come back to Kansas and make a stop in Treece.

"She needs to come here," Pruitt said. "Until you've been, you just don't get the whole picture."

-- -- --

Go on now and say goodbye to my town, to my town.

I can see the sun has gone down on my town, on my town,

Goodnight.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.

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