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Treece may see buyouts by summer

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010, at 12:08 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 4, 2012, at 1:27 p.m.

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Residents in the polluted town of Treece could start seeing offers for their property as soon as this summer if the state can agree to fund one-tenth of a $3.5 million buyout and appoint trustees to oversee the relocation, officials said.

In a letter to state officials, the Environmental Protection Agency outlined the steps yet to go before the approximately 100 residents of the southeast Kansas town can be paid for their property and moved away from environmental hazards left behind by a century of lead and zinc mining.

None of the EPA's conditions appear insurmountable, said state Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus, who represents Treece.

Officials of the EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment have scheduled a community meeting Thursday evening to update the residents of Treece on the progress toward a buyout.

Because Treece doesn't have a large meeting room, the session will be held at the former city hall of Picher, Okla., an adjacent community that has already been bought out and emptied of residents because of the pollution the towns shared.

Treece is surrounded by millions of tons of lead- and zinc-contaminated mining waste called chat, piled up by the mines that once brought prosperity to Picher and Treece.

The area also is dotted with abandoned shafts and cave-ins filled with toxic water, and threatened with ground subsidence from extensive undermining of the community.

Buyout 'favorable'

City Clerk Pam Pruitt said the townspeople received notice Friday of the upcoming public meeting and are eager for answers.

"Hopefully, we can get a lot of good information," she said. "I hope they can at least give an idea of when they're going to start. People can't go looking (for new homes) until they have an idea of the timeline."

Treece has been on the decline since the last of the mines shut down in the early 1970s.

Residents gave up hope of salvaging their town when the EPA began a cleanup project and bought out Picher, which had supplied most of the two communities' jobs, shopping and public services.

Treece missed the first round of buyouts because it is separated from Picher by the state line, putting the two towns under different EPA jurisdictions. While the Dallas office favored a buyout for Picher, the Kansas City, Kan., office resisted buying out Treece.

But in October, Congress passed a law authorizing the EPA to buy out Treece.

The letter from the EPA to the state said the federal agency expects to complete its review of the proposed buyout by the end of the month.

"While a final decision has not been made, the conditions certainly look favorable toward relocating a majority of Treece residents," said the letter, signed by Superfund division directors Samuel Coleman and Cecilia Tapia.

Good news, said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who led efforts to push the buyout through the Senate.

"I am pleased EPA and KDHE are working to advance the relocation process, which would be a long-term solution for the residents of Treece," Roberts said in an e-mail. "Setting up the trust and holding public meetings are important steps to give these folks hope.

"I urge the state to come through on the cost-share commitment to this project to ensure the people of Treece safety."

Testing done in September showed Treece residents average 60 percent more lead in their blood than in the average Kansan's — and that a few community residents have levels reaching the threshold for lead poisoning.

Few hurdles left

Gov. Mark Parkinson has earmarked $350,000 for a Treece buyout in his budget proposal.

However, the money is on a list of potential cuts if lawmakers reject Parkinson's requests for tax increases to cover a $400 million state deficit.

Gatewood said the fact that the buyout is on the list of potential cuts doesn't mean it's going away if the tax plan fails. He said he can't see the state passing up a 90 percent federal match that would eliminate a serious public health hazard.

"I believe that $350,000 will become a priority," he said.

The state also has to appoint five trustees to develop and implement a relocation plan, the EPA letter indicated.

Parkinson aide Beth Martino said the governor's office has a list of candidates and is running background checks.

The governor's office expects to submit the names for Senate confirmation during the current legislative session, she said.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.

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