Blame the EPA: Lead mining threat lingers in a Kansas town

TREECE, Kan. — This is the town that no longer wants to be. It looks with a jealous eye to the south — just across the street — toward the town that is fast becoming no more.

Both Treece and Picher, Okla., sit atop an irregular and cavernous collection of voids left from a century of zinc and lead mining.

The two hamlets both have seen unusual and unhealthy levels of lead show up in the blood of their residents, raising the specter of cognitive and developmental disorders in their young children.

And because the mining took place in often haphazard fashion, the ground has a tendency to collapse on itself.

"I joke to my kids that if they hear a rumbling sound they should run out back," said Pam Pruitt, Treece's city clerk and one of its 100 or so lonesome residents.

The town has passed a resolution calling for a buyout, and found a maddening unfairness in the federal government’s unwillingness to do for Kansans what it’s done for Oklahomans.

The mining died out about 1970, leaving small mountains of toxic tailings with no regard to state or city boundaries. Today, both Picher and Treece are part of the Tar Creek Superfund site — a $60 million-plus environmental clean-up chore. And on both sides of the state line, the federal government is scraping away acres of contaminated soil and preparing to move giant dunes of “chat,” or heavy metal-tainted mine waste.

Between the threat of more cave-ins and ongoing contamination, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency essentially declared Picher a lost cause and decided to move the residents to safer ground.

That was in EPA Region 6.

Unfortunately, for the people of Treece, across the street, it falls in EPA Region 7, where officials insist most of the environmental threat was removed when everybody’s lawn was scraped and hauled away. The prospect of cave-ins, they say, simply isn’t an environmental problem on which the law gives them the power to take action.

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