Blood lead levels warrant EPA buyout, say Treece residents

Charles Moreland and daughter Acey, residents of Treece, wait in line outside Treece City Hall earlier this month to get their blood tested for lead.
Charles Moreland and daughter Acey, residents of Treece, wait in line outside Treece City Hall earlier this month to get their blood tested for lead. The Wichita Eagle

Residents and representatives of Treece say elevated levels of lead among the populace boosts their case for a federal buyout to evacuate the southeast Kansas town.

"It's above average, and it pretty much confirms what we thought," state Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus, who represents Treece, said of the tests. "How do you tell a family you're above average (for lead levels) but you just fell through a crack? You can't do that."

Treece residents have long suspected they would have higher-than-normal levels of lead in their bodies because of exposure to pollution left behind by a century of lead and zinc mining in the community.

That was confirmed last week when government officials released the results of lead testing done last month on most of the city's residents.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he was pleased that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment had joined to test the residents of Treece for lead.

"Screening data shows that the residents of all ages have been and continue to be exposed to environmental hazards," Roberts said. "The health of those living in Treece has been negatively affected and this adds to the case that the federal and state government needs to provide relocation assistance."

Treece is surrounded by huge piles of contaminated gravel called "chat," and the town and its surroundings are dotted with uncapped shafts and cave-ins filled with polluted water.

The remaining 100 or so residents are virtually

unanimous in wanting to move and argue that they deserve the same kind of buyout that the federal government gave to Picher, Okla., which is separated from Treece by only the state line.

Testing for lead

The testing for lead levels among residents was performed in early September after three top EPA officials toured Treece to assess the situation and hear the residents' concerns.

The final results of the testing, released by the EPA on Thursday, showed that the median blood-lead level for Treece residents is 4.0 micrograms per deciliter of blood, compared to the state norm of 2.5.

The largest concern is for children ages birth to six years old. Because they play in the dirt and often put their hands in their mouths, they are particularly susceptible to exposure to environmental lead.

Also, because they are rapidly growing at that age, lead can interfere with the brain and nervous system development of children, causing learning disabilities and other problems.

Health officials said 10 or more is considered lead poisoning and 5 or more is enough to justify additional investigation and education to try to reduce exposure.

Of the 16 children tested in Treece, two had blood-lead levels between 5 and 10 and one had a level of more than 10.

"Dadgum, that's not very good for a couple of those kids — that's another reason to get the folks out of here," said Denny Johnston, a local expert on Treece's environmental issues who guided tours for visiting Congress members and EPA officials.

A lifelong resident, Johnston was among the few townspeople who wasn't tested because he was out of town when the testing was done.

Treece Mayor Bill Blunk said his lead test came it at 4.9 and his wife, Judy, tested at 3.3.

People who spend more time outside appeared to have higher lead levels.

Other problems

Blunk, who makes $1 a year as mayor, mows the lawn at City Hall and the banks of the town sewage lagoon. The pollution has depressed property values in Treece so that the average home is worth less than $10,000 and city tax revenues can't cover the cost of hiring someone to do the mowing.

Gatewood, the state representative, said lead exposure is a major issue, but only one reason Treece should be emptied of people.

"That isn't the entire problem," he said. "The people still have the (ground) subsidence risk, and they lost all the services that were in Picher."

Subsidence — or potential cave-ins or sinkholes — is a constant risk because the town was undermined and pillars left to hold up the ground were compromised by "gougers" who moved in and scraped out the last of the ore.

Also, the abandonment of Picher cost Treece residents access to jobs, local shopping, recreation and public services.

Roberts, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., recently pushed through an amendment to a Senate spending bill that would authorize the EPA to spend the $3 million to $3.5 million it would cost to relocate the people of Treece.

A conference committee will work to reconcile the House and Senate version of the spending bill before the final votes.

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