US Senator Jim Inhofe still opposes buyout plan; work on project to begin

Wednesday, June 18th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe is sticking to his decision to oppose a proposal to purchase the homes of residents living within the Tar Creek Superfund site, even though other officials believe the plan should be considered.

Inhofe, R-Okla., had said Gov. Brad Henry, state Sen. Rick Littlefield, state Rep. Larry Roberts, several mayors and two tribal leaders also opposed a voluntary buyout.

But only Littlefield confirmed on Tuesday that he is against the buyout plan.

``There are a lot of folks up there who want to stay,'' Littlefield, D-Grove, said.

If enough residents leave Picher and Cardin, the communities at the epicenter of the contaminated site, those who stay will be forced to pay off the public debts, he said.

As a result, local schools would lose state aid and may even be forced to close, Littlefield said.

Inhofe said the only way to get a workable solution to the Superfund site was for him to eliminate some options. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Inhofe has influence over Tar Creek legislation.

``It is going to be unpopular, but we are going to clean up the mess,'' he said. ``That is what leadership is all about.''

The Superfund site encompasses a 40 square-mile area of far northeastern Oklahoma. Waste from decades of zinc and lead mining have resulted in mine collapses, open mine shafts, acid mine water that stains Tar Creek orange and mountains of chat.

Local children repeatedly test high for dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

Contractors will meet next week with officials to discuss how to fill the cave-ins, sink holes and other subsidence and how to get rid of the chat in the Picher area.

Bids will open July 8 to determine who will begin cleaning up some of the problems, said Mike Sharp, spokesman for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.

The work will cost up to $500,000, part of $4.3 million lawmakers set aside for the cleanup last year from the state's rainy day fund.

The project isn't expected to go too far toward cleaning up the problem, which could cost ``tens of millions of dollars.''

``This will kind of act as a demonstration project,'' said Sharp, who also is assistant director of a state program to reclaim abandoned mines. ``We can learn from this.''

The project will involve taking most of the site's 80,000 cubic yards of chat _ ore remnants in gravel form _ and dumping it into two large subsidences. One covers 1.5 acres and has water 25 feet deep at the bottom.

Other chat might be used to plug a deep shaft that is open to the surface, Sharp said. The shaft is about 5-feet by 7-feet wide and has water beginning about 50 feet from the surface.

As for a plan to buy out area residents, a spokesman for Governor Henry said the governor believes it's premature to close the door on a possible relocation of residents.

Roberts, D-Miami, said he also saw problems with a voluntary relocation of residents but said he has ``never been opposed to a voluntary buyout.''

Roberts said he agrees with Littlefield about the additional financial burden that a buyout could place on those who want to remain in the area, he said.

``It would be devastating if 500 residents leave Picher,'' Roberts said.

Picher Mayor Sam Freeman expressed those concerns as well but said that as the mayor he has to be open to a voluntary buyout.

``My position is that everyone here should have a personal choice,'' Freeman said.

``I am not saying I personally favor it, but as mayor I think these people are entitled to that.''

Freeman and other Picher officials passed a resolution in April 2001 that said a ``relocation/buyout is considered the appropriate action'' to address the environmental, safety and health issues of the area.

Cardin Mayor Herman McMullin and John Berrey, the chairman of the Quapaw Tribe, couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

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