TREECE — About three-fourths of the residents of this town lined up at their City Hall on Tuesday night to find out whether they have lead poisoning from the decades of mining here.
Preliminary readings indicated some elevated lead levels — including at least one 2-month-old baby and her 4-year-old brother with lead levels about three times the national average for their ages.
It was unknown whether anyone surpassed the threshold the government thinks can cause brain damage and other health problems. Full results of the tests won't be known for about a month.
Government officials conducted an instant test that gives immediate results and also kept samples for more definitive laboratory analysis, said Dave Bryan, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, which ordered the testing.
Many of the residents were nervous, but said they would rather know than not.
"I'm glad to get it, but I'm scared of the needles," said resident Glenda Powell, who came to get tested with her husband, James. "I'm glad they came down. I'm glad everybody's concerned about us."
Also tested for lead were Randy and Trendle Barr and their three children, who live next to a site where the EPA is moving chat as part of a 10-year cleanup project.
"The only high one was Randy's," Trendle Barr said. "He's been outside a lot more."
She said the health workers warned her not to let the family eat outdoors.
"I think it's kind of ironic they tell you not to eat outside, but they leave you here and they say it's safe and won't buy you out," she said.
Treece is surrounded by hundreds of acres of huge piles of contaminated waste known as chat, the remnants of a century of lead and zinc mining that ended in the 1970s.
The town was badly undermined and sits atop flooded tunnels; sinkholes, cave-ins and abandoned shafts dot the landscape around the town.
The testing, which continues today, marks the first time that the government has comprehensively screened to see whether Treece residents have been poisoned by their environment. The tests are being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
State Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus, said he was pleased that the testing had been ordered following meetings with three top EPA officials who toured the town last month.
But he said regardless of the outcome, he thinks Treece still needs to be bought out and shut down like the adjacent town of Picher, Okla., which is just across the state line.
The population of Treece has dwindled to about 100 people. Local officials say the town is unsalvageable because of the pollution, the threat of ground subsidence and the loss of jobs, commerce and public services they used to get from Picher.
"I just can't say it enough: It's a fairness issue," Gatewood said. "This (Treece and Picher) is all one city."
In fact, it all was one city until a re-survey of the state line about 100 years ago; Treece deeds note they were originally platted as part of Picher.
"It says that on every title within the Treece city limits," Gatewood said.
Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback, Kansas' U.S. senators, have been pushing for the EPA to spend the $3 million to $3.5 million it would cost to buy out the residents and move them.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Topeka, has introduced a bill in the House that would force a buyout.