Lead levels higher in Treece residents

Treece resident Holly Bruner and her 2-year-old son Trenton participated in a town meeting with a delegation from the EPA on a tour of Treece.
Treece resident Holly Bruner and her 2-year-old son Trenton participated in a town meeting with a delegation from the EPA on a tour of Treece. The Wichita Eagle

Residents of the mine-waste polluted town of Treece have about 60 percent more lead in their bloodstream than the average Kansan, according to the results of medical tests performed last month.

Comprehensive lead testing done Sept. 8 and 9 found that the median lead level for Treece residents is 4.0 micrograms per deciliter of blood, compared to a norm of 2.5 for all Kansas residents, said a report released by the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday.

One of the 16 children tested last month showed a blood-lead level higher than 10, the point at which state health officials define lead poisoning. Two others showed levels between 5 and 10.

EPA officials estimate that the children tested represent about half the population of Treece from birth to age six.

Combined with test results from 2005 to 2008, the health survey estimated that 8.8 percent of children in Treece would have lead levels of more than 10, compared with 3.8 percent of children across Cherokee County, which includes Treece, and 2.9 percent of children across the state.

"It's an alarm any time we have children with (elevated) lead levels," said David Bryan, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency in Kansas City, Kan.

He said the EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment will be retesting the child whose levels indicated lead poisoning.

The agencies also will follow up with families whose tests showed borderline results, to help them reduce their exposure to the toxic metal, he said.

Bryan said the results of the September testing were about what the agency expected.

For many years — and in a lot of cases for life — residents of Treece have been exposed to environmental lead left behind by a century of mining operations.

The town is surrounded by hundreds of acres of lunar-like piles of "chat," a gray lead- and zinc-contaminated waste left over from the mineral extraction process.

In addition, the area is dotted with abandoned shafts and cave-ins that flooded when the miners left and pumps that kept the mines relatively dry were turned off in the early 1970s.

Treece residents and local officials have been campaigning to try to get the EPA to buy out the town and move out the people, as it did with the neighboring community of Picher, Okla.

The closure of Picher hurt Treece, eliminating jobs, shopping, recreation and public services including fire protection and cable television.

The lead testing was offered to everyone in town after three top EPA officials visited Treece in August to tour the community, assess the environmental hazards and listen to residents' concerns.

Government estimates say it would cost $3 million to $3.5 million to buy up the remaining homes in Treece and relocate the population.

Late last month, the U.S. Senate passed a bill recognizing the health risks posed by living in Treece and authorizing the EPA to buy out the community.

The language was inserted into an environmental spending bill by Kansas Republican Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who shepherded the Picher buyout through Congress.

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