Treece residents get some buyout answers

Treece, Kan., gets its water supply from Cherokee County. Local groundwater is polluted from abandoned World War II lead and zinc mines in the area. (June 24, 2009)
Treece, Kan., gets its water supply from Cherokee County. Local groundwater is polluted from abandoned World War II lead and zinc mines in the area. (June 24, 2009) The Wichita Eagle

TREECE — Now that the government is buying out this dangerously contaminated city, residents are wondering where they'll be able to go.

On Tuesday, the answer was they can go anywhere they want — except for another area poisoned by mining activity.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency — which are funding the $3 million-plus buyout — hope to avoid repeating mistakes made a few years ago when EPA funded a similar buyout of neighboring Picher, Okla.

Gary Blackburn, director of the remediation division of KDHE, said some of the residents who got a buyout in Picher resettled in Treece and will now have to be bought out again.

"We don't want you moving into another mine site," Blackburn said. "If that's the case, you might just as well stay where you are."

From the residents' perspective, the concern is that a lot of the communities around Treece are also affected — though generally to a lesser extent — by the same kind of heavy metal contamination and ground subsidence that has rendered Treece virtually uninhabitable.

"I know how much it's been undermined. You can't find a place where it's not," said Emerson Fitzgerald, 76. "How are you going to define where a mining area is?"

Fitzgerald has lived in Treece since age 18 and is one of the few left who worked in the underground lead mines that left the city a polluted wreck.

"It's all undermined, partner," Fitzgerald told Gene Bicknell, recently appointed by Gov. Mark Parkinson to the board of trustees that is overseeing the buyout.

Bicknell sought to allay the concern, saying that many parts of neighboring communities aren't affected by mine waste.

"It'll be easy to figure out, I promise," Bicknell said.

Treece was a successful mining town for nearly a century, but the success came at a price. For hundreds of acres around, the town is surrounded by huge mounds of lead- and zinc-contaminated mine waste called chat.

The landscape is dotted by cave-ins and abandoned shafts filled to surface level with contaminated water unfit for human contact.

Last year, Congress approved a law setting aside funds to buy out the remaining 100 or so residents and move them to safer surroundings.

The appointment of the trustees — recently confirmed by the Kansas Senate — was the last piece of the puzzle to make the buyout a reality.

The five trustees, who met for the first time Tuesday, sought to assure all the residents that they'll get a fair deal on their properties.

"I'm here to protect your interest. These are your tax dollars," said trustee Jim Dahmen. He said he and the others realize that moving will mean big changes for the people of Treece, some of whom have lived there all their lives.

"We're talking about home," he said. "We're not talking about real estate and those kinds of things."

The state officials and trustees told residents assembled at the former Picher City Hall — the only building in the area big enough to hold them — that they realize that property values in Treece have been deeply depressed by the pollution and an ongoing EPA cleanup.

Pre-buyout, the average value of a home in Treece was $10,000. And at that, there were few people who would want to buy one.

The trustees said that for residents who lived in the town before March 13, 2006 — the date the city passed an ordinance to seek a buyout — the price for homes in Treece will be based on what they'd pay for a comparable home in Cherokee County towns outside the mining zone.

For residents who moved in after, the price they paid for their house will be the guide.

Renters will be eligible as well and probably receive about a year's worth of rent. They'll be able to use the money to rent somewhere else or aggregate it to make a down payment on a home of their own.

Bicknell estimated that appraisals can start this summer. He expressed hope that the buyouts will be completed in 18 to 24 months.

"We're moving with our paperwork and procedures as fast as we can," he said. "It takes a lot of planning and preparation to do."

Residents said they are worried the process won't be as tidy as it's been outlined, because of the many different kinds of ownership situations that have developed in Treece over the years.

"There's a lot of things they're not aware of — it's not going to be real smooth sailing," said Rick Waldon, pastor of the Treece Bible Holiness Church, which has about 15 to 20 people in its services.

But he added that he appreciates the trustees coming to town and attempting to allay residents' concerns about the process.

"I'd say that they did the best that they could just getting started off," he said.

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