By Roger McKinney
TREECE, Kan. —
A ceremony — some called it a celebration — on Thursday marked the formal end of the federal buyout of Treece, another small town left to languish in the legacy of lead and zinc mining.
It included federal and state officials and former residents of the former town.
“This whole story is about people,” said Karl Brooks, Region 7 administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s about people’s lives. It’s about a community transformed.”
The EPA allocated $3.5 million in 2009 to pay for the buyout of residents.
“Once, this town hummed with lead and zinc mining,” Brooks said. He said the equivalent of $1 billion in lead and zinc was removed from the ground in the Tri-State Mining District, providing livelihoods to hundreds of thousands of residents over six generations.
“The price was the environmental contamination we have been working on for 30 years” in the EPA Superfund area, he said. “We’re not done here. We have millions more to spend.”
Brooks called the Treece buyout an example of what government can do.
Pam Pruitt, former city clerk, said before the ceremony that she was feeling many emotions. She now lives in Baxter Springs.
“I’m glad it’s finally coming to an end,” she said. “I’m happy that it went good. It was a good process. Everybody involved made it so easy.”
In her remarks during the ceremony, she said it became difficult emotionally as people moved away.
“The hardest part was to watch the town empty out,” she said. “You realize how important all these people are to you.”
U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., said the Treece buyout is an example that the system does work.
“To actually have a success story to tell really gives us hope that we can get things done when we work together,” Jenkins said.
She said Democratic state Rep. Doug Gatewood, of Columbus, had tenacity and patience in speaking with her and other federal officials about Treece. She said Democrats and Republicans worked together in the House and Senate to help the people of Treece.
“I have to thank my Democrat colleagues,” she said.
Gatewood said resident Gayla Woodcock first sounded the alarm with him about Treece in 2005. She told him that with neighboring Picher, Okla., undergoing a federal buyout, the people in Treece would be left without much infrastructure. He said they put a meeting together on a cold night, and 79 people showed up to the tiny City Hall. He said an informal survey indicated that 76 of those attending would support a voluntary buyout.
“It is a great partnership,” Gatewood said. He said all he had to do to convince federal officials that there was a problem was bring them to Treece and show them around.
Betty McBride, a member of the Treece Relocation Assistance Trust, thanked residents for giving the trust an opportunity to give them a new life in a new place free of contamination.
Several speakers praised Bob Jurgens, who oversaw every aspect of the buyout procedure for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Jurgens said he had no experience doing this. He said he got off on the wrong foot when at the first public meeting, he told residents, “I understand.” He said residents were right to point out that he didn’t understand.
He said that since then, he has gotten to know Treece residents.
“I’m very pleased to be part of it,” Jurgens said. “It took a community to make it happen.”
He said 66 residential owners, 12 renters, two businesses, a church and 14 vacant properties were part of the buyout. One resident decided to stay.
Jurgens said that when the average of three independent appraisals didn’t provide residents enough to find housing elsewhere, the trust listened to residents’ concerns and added 20 percent to the average, with a minimum increase of $5,000 and a maximum increase of $10,000.
He said four auctions of vacated buildings and properties brought in $103,000.
Jurgens was given a certificate from the EPA, presented by Brooks, “for exceptional management of all aspects of the Treece project.”
Jan Leatherman, a 40-year Treece resident, said after the ceremony ended that Jurgens drove by her house after a snowstorm and saw her outside with her snow shovel. She hadn’t been able to get to her mailbox for three days.
“He got out and took my shovel, and shoveled a path for me,” she said. “He’s filled with kindness, besides the meticulous job he did.”
Leatherman was one of the last to leave. She now lives in Miami, Okla.
“It’s hard to see the place you lived just slowly disappear,” she said.
BOB JURGENS, who managed the Treece buyout for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said all the property within the Treece city limits will be auctioned under one deed. He said he has heard interest from farmers, who would like to graze cattle if the price is right. Others may want to create an area for wildlife.