Congress authorized buying out the residents of the contaminated community of Treece on Thursday, and the Environmental Protection Agency signaled it's ready to move forward with emptying the town of people.
The House and Senate both approved an environmental appropriations bill that includes language allowing the EPA to spend money to relocate the population of the southeast Kansas town, which is plagued with lead, zinc and other chemical contamination left by a century of mining.
The bill now goes to President Obama, who is expected to sign it into law by Saturday.
Shortly after Thursday's Senate vote, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson issued a statement saying that relocation is the "primary option" for addressing the problem in Treece.
Estimates say it will cost about $3 million to $3.5 million to buy out the town, which is surrounded by huge piles of mining waste called chat and dotted with uncapped shafts and cave-ins filled with brackish, polluted water.
"It's been a long, dusty, chat-covered road, but for the citizens of Treece, finally, help will be on the way," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who has been pushing for a buyout of Treece for two years.
Roberts said he has been in contact with EPA officials and expects a formal buyout announcement "in weeks, not months."
He introduced the buyout amendment in the Senate along with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Topeka, pushed for a buyout on the House side.
Thursday's vote approved a House-Senate conference report that reconciled differences in the two chambers' environmental spending plans.
"We had a big day in Washington, a good day," Treece Mayor Bill Blunk said.
"We're looking at about 16 to 18 months after we get the (EPA) approval for actually moving out. Then, we'll be on the way hopefully to a bigger and better life."
The population of Treece has dwindled to about 100 people, almost all of whom want to move but say they can't because the pollution and an ongoing EPA cleanup project makes it impossible to sell a house.
The EPA has already bought out the neighboring town of Picher, Okla., stripping Treece of quick access to jobs, shopping, recreation and services, including fire protection and cable TV.
Both cities were once prosperous mining communities. But the ore ran out and the mines were abandoned by the early 1970s.
Treece, separated from Picher by only the state line, missed out on that buyout because Kansas and Oklahoma are in different EPA administrative regions.
EPA officials in the Dallas office supported Picher's buyout, but officials in the Kansas City office resisted buying out Treece.
In August, Jackson dispatched three of her top aides to Treece to assess the environmental situation. They ordered comprehensive lead testing for the residents, which was done in September.
The testing showed a median blood-lead level for Treece residents of 4.0 micrograms per deciliter of blood, compared with the state norm of 2.5.
Of 16 children tested, two had levels between 5 and 10, triggering follow-up counseling to try to reduce their exposure to lead. One had a level of more than 10, the threshold for lead poisoning.
"After sending a team to meet with residents and local officials, EPA determined that the people of Treece, Kansas faced a unique and urgent threat from the legacy of pollution in their community," Jackson said in her statement. "EPA has determined that relocation is the primary option to address the concerns of Treece residents — just as it was in neighboring Picher, Okla.
"It is our hope that this will give them the opportunity to raise their children, run their businesses, and get on with their lives free of the burdens of pollution and environmental degradation."