Kansans gain help from Oklahoman in push for EPA to buy out Treece

Three Kansas Congress members have enlisted a powerful ally and identified what they think might be a source of money to buy out the contaminated community of Treece.

Kansas Republican Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback and Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Topeka, have dispatched a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson asking for $3 million for a Treece buyout from funds being returned to EPA from a Washington state cleanup site.

The three have teamed up before to try to get Jackson to approve a buyout for Treece. The newest letter also carries the signature of Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking minority member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

As chairman of the committee when the Senate was under Republican control, Inhofe pushed through legislation authorizing the buyout of Picher, Okla., which is just across the state line from Treece and shares the same environmental hazards.

Both Picher and Treece thrived for a century as centers of mining for lead, zinc and other minerals.

But when the ores petered out and the last mines closed in the early 1970s, the communities were left surrounded by hundreds of acres of contaminated waste gravel known as chat. The landscape is dotted with cave-ins and sinkholes, and both towns were extensively undermined, creating a threat of ground subsidence.

Roberts aide Sarah Little said the senator’s office staff has been working with Inhofe’s staff to try to get Treece the same kind of deal that Picher got.

“They said they’ll do whatever they can to help us,” she said.

Jenkins aide Mary Geiger said Inhofe “brings another powerful voice to this issue.”

“Congresswoman Jenkins thinks that having Sen. Inhofe’s support greatly strengthens her and Sens. Roberts’ and Brownback’s efforts  to secure a buyout for Treece,” she said,

Last week, three top EPA executives toured Treece and fielded questions from residents who are near unanimous in their desire to move out.

Officials estimate it would cost $3 million to $3.5 million to buy out the last 100 or so residents and consign Treece to history along with Picher.

In their letter, the Congress members said they think they may have found the money to do that.

They quote from a news report that an EPA cleanup project at the Wyckoff-Eagle Harbor Superfund site on Washington’s Puget Sound is expecting to return $3 million to the EPA because of delays in reaching agreement with the state’s Department of Ecology.

“If EPA does in fact decide to reallocate the $3 million in Superfund funds we would request that EPA consider reallocating the funds” to Kansas, the letter said. “Specifically, the money would be used for relocation assistance in Treece, Kansas. The properties in Treece are in danger of being destroyed and the health of the occupants are at risk.”

The Picher buyout was approved by the EPA’s regional office in Dallas, but didn’t extend past the state line because Kansas falls under the Kansas City, Kan., regional office.

Kansas City EPA officials say they have removed tainted soil from the yards in Treece, eliminating the main source of exposure, particularly for children who are at the greatest risk for lead poisoning.

The EPA has a 10-year project under way to reclaim the land around Treece, but residents complain that the emptying of Picher has cut them off from jobs, commerce, recreation and public services, leaving their town unsalvageable. They also complain of dust clouds kicked up by the EPA’s trucks and bulldozers, although EPA officials say they are working hard to control the dust and that the air-quality health threat is minimal.