June 4, 2012

For last residents of Treece, life goes on

Turn off the main road into this town and your car will nose-dive into a ditch.

Turn off the main road into this town and your car will nose-dive into a ditch.

You’re not supposed to be here. Treece is dead. Air, water and dirt, all poisoned by decades of lead and zinc mining. The stores and filling station are gone. People, too, their houses torn down. Somebody bought the water tower and hauled it away. Big machines came in and ripped the asphalt off the streets, leaving wide, grid-like swaths of crumbled rock.

The ditches cross the ends of streets to block access. Mountains of toxic mine waste called “chat” surround all the nothing that is left.

But in the thick of this ugly, gray wasteland, red roses grow on Della Busby’s chain-link fence. A breeze strums the 30 or so chimes that hang from the deck of her double-wide. Cabbage and tomatoes grow out back. Della’s roosters are crowing and so is she.

“I don’t know why everybody left,” she said recently on the deck. “I think they moved too fast. They should have waited. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this place. This is home.”

Della, 49, and her husband, Tim, have the whole town to themselves.

Everyone else took a government buyout and left. Those people heeded the health warnings about how high levels of lead in the blood can severely harm reproductive systems and cause nervous disorders, kidney damage and high blood pressure. Most alarming of all, the lead can cause developmental problems in children.

There was also the fact that because of haphazard mining, the ground around Treece is as rickety as a rotten roof. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hundreds of cave-ins have occurred here. One was huge, 300 feet wide and 200 feet deep, back in the 1960s. Now, most are small, though big enough to swallow a person.

Just across the road from Treece is what’s left of Picher, Okla., another victim of the lead. Remaining buildings there stand like mausoleums.

In 2009, Congress authorized a voluntary buyout and evacuation for Treece. Of 65 homes, the government got 64, paying out $3.1 million.

“Relocation is hard,” EPA spokesperson David Bryan said this week. “This was their home.

“But the threat is real.”

Still, Della Busby — Tim lets her do the talking — is pretty insistent the government won’t get that 65th home.

At first, she talks as if she and Tim refused to sell because the buyout offer was paltry. It started at $28,000 before two bumps got it up to $42,000 — still not enough to buy much of a place outright, and that’s what they needed.

She works at Bagcraft, a factory in Baxter Springs that makes sandwich wrappers for McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Tim is an “odds and ends” guy. They didn’t want a mortgage payment.

But as she talks, it becomes clear it wasn’t about money. They flat-out didn’t want to leave.

“We both been around here our whole lives,” Della said. “Grew up here and moved to this place 27 years ago. This was where we was going to raise our kids and stay put.

“We did look around for houses when everybody else did. In Seneca and Chetopa. We found some nice ones”

She let the thought trail away before adding, “I just don’t think I’d be happy anywhere else.”

Then she pulled hard on her cigarette, exhaled, and, with words as hard as the land around her, said: “Even if there is something wrong here, I ain’t afraid of it.”

‘I kind of like it quiet’

On a recent afternoon at the Busby place, Barbara Mandrell’s “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” played from a radio in an old shed out back.

A dog barked when visitors parked out front.

Kids used to play in the neighborhood. Bigger kids rode bikes. Vehicles passed by and drivers waved. But that’s all gone now.

“I kind of like it quiet like this,” Della said on the deck. “I come out here with my coffee in the morning. Don’t even have to comb my hair.”

Her street is the only one not blocked by a ditch.

A weeping willow a couple of blocks to the east makes it easy to imagine this town. The tree once shaded a lawn. Old folks may have sat beneath its canopy on summer evenings. The trees tell where houses stood. Flowers still bloom.

“I miss them,” Della said of the people who left. “I knew them all. I wish they’d all come back, but I know that’s not going to happen.”

Tim took the lead-blood test, which showed nothing to worry about, Della said. She refused to be tested.

Della and Tim talked to their three grown children about leaving or staying.

“They left it up to me,” she said, before smiling. “They knew I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Daughter Crystal Busby doesn’t blame her mother for staying.

“I’m proud of her for sticking her ground,” Crystal said. “I don’t think there is a health risk in Treece. It’s really upsetting to me that the hometown I grew up in is no longer there. The residents sold out cheap. My parents didn’t buckle in the sight of money.”

And they are happy.

Tim just built a new double-story playhouse for the grandkids. He raises pigeons.

Della gets a dozen eggs a day from her 17 hens. When she sees a pretty flower growing beside the road, she digs it up and plants it in her yard.

So when will this town die?

“I guess when everybody’s gone,” she said.

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