Polluted Kansas Town Seeks Federal Buyout

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Local and state officials are trying to get a federal buyout to move residents from Treece, Kan. Treece was once a prosperous mining town, but is now nearly deserted. The roughly 100 residents left complain of widespread contamination from lead and zinc waste. Dion Lefler, a reporter for the Wichita Eagle, who was in Treece last week, calls the town "a very sad place."


Now, the story of Treece, Kansas. It's a small town so plagued by environmental contamination that its residents want the federal government to pay them to leave. Treece is just across the state line from Picher, Oklahoma. In fact, before the state line was surveyed a hundred years ago, it was part of Picher, Oklahoma. Picher and Treece were mining towns whose heyday is long gone. The lead ore and zinc that brought money into town have left behind toxic waste above ground and flooded caverns below. But Picher and Treece have gotten different treatment from the Environmental Protection Agency. Picher residents also asked for a buyout. They got one and they left. But not the folks who still live in Treece. Reporter Dion Lefler of the Wichita Eagle was there in the town last week.

And tell me, what does Treece, Kansas, actually look like?

Mr. DION LEFLER (Reporter, Wichita Eagle): Well, Treece is a very sad place. It's surrounded by these huge piles of mine waste. They call it chat. What it is it's sort of a gravel that's left over after you extract the lead and zinc. But, of course, there's still lead and zinc in it. The town itself is down to about a hundred residents left. There's really no way to sell a house there, so everything is just kind of fallen apart.

SIEGEL: Hmm. That's Treece, Kansas. Now, you're about a mile, I gather, due south. And you're in Picher, Oklahoma. What does that look like?

Mr. LEFLER: Picher is a ghost town. The city hall will be closing next month. The post office has already closed. The school district is shut down. All the ball fields are overgrown and rusting. It is literally abandoned.

SIEGEL: Now, I've read that Picher actually was the larger town. And I gather that's where the folks who live in Treece would have gone to do their shopping.

Mr. LEFLER: Yeah, their shopping. Many of them worked there. They got a lot of their public services from there. The fire department was there. In Treece, they have a very tiny city budget. They paid $500 to Picher to have the fire trucks come and put out their fires.


Mr. LEFLER: And since the town has started to wind down, there have been more fires because when you have abandoned houses, you wind up with people coming in and doing vandalism. The other thing that they had a big problem with was methamphetamine labs. People kind of moved in there. They closed down 17 methamphetamine labs.

SIEGEL: Seventeen methamphetamine labs in one tiny Kansas town?

Mr. LEFLER: It's quite a mess.

SIEGEL: Now, I want you to explain how it was that Picher, Oklahoma, and Treece, Kansas, separated by all of a mile and just across the state line, got different treatment from the EPA.

Mr. LEFLER: Actually, they're not even really separated by a mile. I mean, it's a soft seven iron from Treece City Hall into Picher. They really are adjacent communities. But the thing is, is that because there is a state line there, they fall into different regions of the Environmental Protection Agency. Picher was in Region 6 and Treece was in Region 7 - or is in Region 7, I should say.

So, on the Oklahoma side, the Dallas office of the EPA, with some strong urging from Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, they signed off on the buyout for Picher. The Region 7 people have been resisting buying out Treece. They say that they came in and they did some cleanups in the yards and that they've removed the main paths of exposure to the lead for the children, which is the big concern.

SIEGEL: They're in Kansas City? That's where that regional office is?

Mr. LEFLER: Yes. The Regional 7 office is in Kansas City, Kansas, yes.

SIEGEL: Was Treece - or for that matter, were Picher and Treece once relatively prosperous places? I mean, was it a reasonably good life for people when the mines were operating?

Mr. LEFLER: Oh, they were very prosperous. This was a huge lead and zinc producing region of the country. They made the bullets for two world wars. I walked down the street with a guy named Denny Johnston(ph) who lives there. And he showed me, you know, where there used to be two grocery stores, where there used to be, you know, a theater, there used to be bars and restaurants. And it just really, you know, it's all gone now. And it's, you know, it's a sad thing. And there's really no way out. The only way out of Treece is to walk away, literally.

SIEGEL: Well, Dion Lefler, thank you very much for talking with us about it today.

Mr. LEFLER: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Dion Lefler is a reporter for the Wichita Eagle.

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