EPA to test Treece residents for lead poisoning

Residents of Treece will be tested for lead poisoning next week, in response to concerns expressed to high-level federal officials who recently visited the contaminated southeast Kansas community.

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency will install air monitors to check for airborne lead and other possible contaminants.

The lead testing, on Sept. 8 and 9, will be open to all residents and will be the first comprehensive program of its kind in Treece.

The air monitoring will be the first since 1993, said David Bryan, a spokesman for the EPA.

Tonya Kirk, a City Council member and mother of three, said she's pleased that the testing is beginning.

"I think it's a good deal," Kirk said.

Of her three sons, only the youngest, 4-year-old Colton, has been tested.

His lead level was eight micrograms per deciliter, about four times the national average for his age but less than the 10 that the Centers for Disease Control considers hazardous, Kirk said.

Kirk plans to get tested herself, along with her older boys, Brandon, 7, and Andrew, 15.

"Now I've just got to talk my husband into it," she said.

Children are generally considered the most susceptible to lead poisoning because they play in the dirt and put their hands in their mouths.

Lead has been linked to a variety of childhood health problems, including brain damage and developmental disabilities.

The lead testing will take place at Treece City Hall from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 8 and 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 9.

Bryan said it's unusual to offer lead testing for adults, but the EPA decided to open the Treece program to all because of the depth of public concern and the small number of residents.

Health officials from federal, state and county agencies will conduct the testing, he said.

A once-prosperous mining town, Treece has dwindled to about 100 people since the ore petered out in the early 1970s.

A century of mineral extraction left the community surrounded by hundreds of acres covered with mammoth piles of lead- and zinc-contaminated waste known as chat.

Miners tunneled beneath the city and the landscape is dotted with abandoned shafts, sinkholes and cave-ins that have filled with contaminated water.

Unable to sell their homes, residents have been calling for the federal government to buy them out so they can move away from the environmental hazards.

The adjacent, larger town of Picher, Okla., which faced similar environmental damage, has already been bought out and nearly emptied of people.

Treece residents say the loss of Picher's jobs, public services, shopping and recreation has rendered their town unsalvageable.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, had been pressing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to visit Treece. She sent three top aides to assess the situation Aug. 20.

The officials who toured the community and fielded questions from residents were Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response; Bob Sussman, senior policy counsel to Jackson; and William Rice, acting head of EPA's Region 7, based in Kansas City.

Roberts aide Sarah Little said the senator is pleased with the quick response to the residents' request for environmental testing.

Lack of data is one factor that has hampered efforts to get Treece the same treatment that Picher received.

"If you're going to say Treece is different, you have to say why," Little said.

The EPA has done some cleanup work in Treece, testing all the yards in the community and replacing topsoil in about 40 that showed high concentrations of lead. Officials have said that removed the main exposure pathway for residents.

The agency also has a 10-year plan under way to reclaim contaminated land and lay clay caps over the remaining chat piles.

But in the meeting with the EPA chiefs, residents said they were far from reassured and that the EPA cleanup efforts regularly kick up clouds of dust from the chat piles.

The air monitoring will begin this month and results will be posted on the EPA's Web site along with historic data from Treece and other Cherokee County sites, officials said.