Former residents say goodbye to contaminated town of Treece

Residents and local officials gathered here Thursday to say a fond and final farewell to a lead-contaminated town that no longer exists.

In the past two years, this city in the far southeastern corner of Kansas has been virtually emptied of its residents, who were given government-sponsored buyouts to move away after Treece was declared unsafe for human habitation.

Thursday’s ceremony was part municipal funeral and part celebration of the community that once was and is no longer.

“I just want to congratulate everyone that had a deal in this buyout, that it went as smoothly as it did and as expediently as it did,” said Bill Blunk, the last mayor of Treece. “Once we found that it was deemed unsafe, the ball started rolling and it didn’t stop until it was finished.”

Treece has now officially been removed from the map, disincorporated by an act of the state Legislature earlier this year.

Where once there were houses, trailers, churches and municipal buildings, there is now only empty land, rapidly being overtaken by the prairie grassland from which the city sprung about a century ago.

The town water tower has been toppled and sold for scrap metal, and even the asphalt of the streets was scraped up to be used in roads elsewhere.

The former townspeople who gathered at the edge of what had been their city have now mostly fanned out to nearby, safer communities – Columbus and Baxter Springs in Kansas and Joplin and Miami on the Missouri and Oklahoma sides of the state lines.

Pam Pruitt, Treece’s last city clerk, moved to Treece as a teenager, moved away with her husband, a Treece native, and then insisted they move back so they could raise their children with their families nearby.

She was near tears as she talked about how during the buyout, fewer and fewer people would come by each month when she opened City Hall to accept water-bill payments.

“We were so close-knit, and that was the hardest thing in this process,” Pruitt said. “It was like not only the people were moving but it felt like your memories were going with them. That sounds crazy, but it did.

“You just came to look around and realize how important all of those people were to you. Everyone I have talked to has said the same. They miss that. That is the thing that is missed the most.”

Mining’s legacy

Once skeptical of the buyout plan, Pruitt said she came around after lead testing showed that the town she loved was harming the people who lived there.

“There came a time that you had to realize what was going on around us,” she said. “Sometimes you live among it and you just overlook it. You don’t pay attention to it.

“But when the lead testing was done, that’s when it hit home to me something had to be done.”

The Treece townsite is surrounded by millions of tons of lead and zinc mining waste, and dotted with sinkholes and uncapped mineshafts filled with contaminated water. Before the danger was realized, the town’s children used them for swimming holes and would come home with reddened skin that everyone thought was sunburn.

The moonscape-like piles of waste – known locally as “chat” – and the undermined land beneath the city itself were the legacy of a century of mining. Treece and its next-door neighbor – Picher, Okla. – produced much of the lead that was turned into bullets for two world wars.

The final cost of the Treece buyout is expected to be about $3.6 million, said Bob Jurgens, chief of assessment and restoration for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Jurgens, who served as the project manager, said the government bought out 66 families’ homes and relocated 12 renters. The government also acquired 31 vacant lots, 14 vacant houses, four city properties, two businesses and a church.

As buildings were bought, they were razed or sold at auction and moved out of town. When an ongoing EPA cleanup is finished and the chat either removed or encapsulated in impermeable clay, the plan is to auction the property with a condition that no buildings can ever be built there again, Jurgens said.

Once the cleanup is done, the land will be usable for hunting and grazing, he said.

Pulling together

Picher was bought out by the government several years ago. But Treece was left out because the Oklahoma border was also the dividing line between two regions of Environmental Protection Agency jurisdiction.

Officials on the south side of the line favored buyouts while those on the Kansas side sought to rehabilitate the area with Treece’s few remaining residents in place.

According to State Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus, the turning point was a community meeting where 76 of the 79 residents in attendance voted that it was time to go. He sponsored state legislation to buy out the residents, but it took an act of Congress to make that happen.

That was spearheaded in the Senate by Pat Roberts, R-Dodge City, and in the House by Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Topeka, who both toured Treece at Gatewood’s invitation.

“I barely had hung up the phone and she (Jenkins) was here to see what it was like and to do the tour and to walk around and she says, ‘We’ve got to do something to help these people,’ ” Gatewood said.

Roberts’ reaction was similar, he said.

“As we drove through and he looked at the situation, his first words, if I may quote him, were, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Gatewood said.

Jenkins, who attended Thursday’s ceremony, said the buyout was a triumph over the partisan divide in Washington politics.

At the time, both the House and Senate were controlled by Democrats, so she and Roberts worked with then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to get it done.

At a time when many Americans believe their government’s broken and can’t do anything right, “I think it just gives people hope,” Jenkins said.

“This is a shining example of what can happen when everybody does their job and when you put the American people first.”

In the end, that may be Treece’s final legacy to the country, said Karl Brooks, the regional chief administrator for the EPA.

Future environmental managers will look at Treece as an example “and see we can do big, complicated things when we pull together like this.”

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