State officials update residents on lead cleanup, study plans

By Gary Garton

Globe Staff Reporter

MIAMI, Okla. - With three weeks left in Oklahoma's legislative session, Gov. Brad Henry's buyout plan for Tar Creek families remains tied up in a conference committee trying to work out differences between the House and Senate.

"I am confident we will get a bill through the Legislature, but there are still some unanswered questions about its form and content," Miles Tolbert, Oklahoma's secretary of the environment, said Thursday.

Tolbert was a guest speaker at the sixth annual Tar Creek Conference, which began Thursday at the Miami Civic Center. The conference, sponsored by the Local Environmental Action Demanded Agency, continues today.

At another conference session, Sam Coleman, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 6 Superfund program, said his office is working more closely with EPA Region 7, which has conducted lead-remediation work in Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas.

"A lot of questions have been raised about the difference in our projects and why we at Region 6 haven't had the same speed and quality of success," Coleman said. "It boils down to the fact that we have a much larger area and a more complex range of issues to deal with."

He and Mary Jane Calvey, with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, said their agencies are communicating and coordinating their work with Region 7, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

In his remarks, Tolbert said one of the questions still unanswered about the governor's buyout plan is whether it will be fully funded this year. He said one version of the bill being considered by the committee would set aside $3 million this fiscal year and $2 million next fiscal year.

"We have a commitment from the legislature for a total of $5 million," Tolbert said. "If it's paid out in increments, that would still be workable. We could get started on the initial appropriation, and finish the work next year."

Henry's plan would offer buyouts to families in the "core area" of the Tar Creek Superfund Site who have children 6 or younger.

They would be paid the average price in the area market for a house of comparable size and quality somewhere away from the lead-polluted area.

Families who rent would be given the equivalent of 12 months' rent in a comparable location outside the area, and their landlords would be compensated for 12 months of lost rent.

Tolbert said another question is the exact definition of the "core area."

It would include the towns of Picher and Cardin, but the extent of its boundaries in the populated but unincorporated areas around the towns has not been decided.

Money for the buyouts would be administered by a trust, set up by the state, that would include local residents and people not living in the immediate area.

Tolbert said the inclusion of those not from the area was done for a sense of fairness, "so the people making the decisions on who gets the buyout grants doesn't fall entirely on people who may be their neighbors or friends."

He said Henry, a Democrat, will have the authority to appoint the trust board and will take nominations from area legislators, other elected officials and the public.

"We are going to consider all suggestions," Tolbert said. "There is no predetermined criteria with the exception that we will want some people with real estate expertise and experience on the panel."

Other questions from the audience addressed by Thursday's speakers:

Coleman said the EPA is aware of the potential impact of downstream pollution from Tar Creek, including Grand Lake. He said the agency does not have money to address that problem in the current "operating unit" and is still gathering information on what actions might be needed.

Coleman said the EPA is continuing negotiations with mining companies and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which have been identified as potentially responsible parties in creating the environmental problem from the lead and zinc mining in the first half of the 20th century.

"Superfund was not created to clean up pollution," he said. "It was originally created to force the polluters to pay for the cleanup. In the Tar Creek site we have had to proceed with federal funds because of the immediate health risks posed to children by the lead contamination."

Gene Lilly, with the Army Corps of Engineers, said the Tar Creek Watershed Reconnaissance study, paid for under Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe's plan, is working on test projects to find long-term solutions to the pollution. Inhofe is a Republican.

"A buyout is one alternative for people in that area, but our job is to find ways to make the area livable and clean again," Lilly said.

Lilly said a draft report on the corps study is due to be issued in August. Some test filtration ponds and groundwater containment areas have already begun on Beaver Creek and the George Mayer property at the south edge of Commerce.

"We're trying to work out long-term solutions that will not only address current problems, but be flexible enough to meet new ones that are found as new data is gathered," he said.

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