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Picher and Cardin Property's Fate Remains Unclear

PICHER, Okla. (AP) _ State and federal officials offered assurances there would be funds for every person wanting to be bought out within a section of the Tar Creek Superfund Site, but the fate of the land remained unclear.

Residents of Picher and Cardin picked up applications for the federally funded buyout at the first meeting of the board overseeing the process on Tuesday. A second batch of applications arrived at the Picher City Hall, Picher's housing authority and the Cardin U.S. Post Office on Friday.

Applicants have a Sept. 30 deadline to turn in their request for a buyout of their home or business in the lead-tainted former mining area. Highest priority for the buyout will be given to those locations most likely to be lost to a collapse of undermined ground.

Ultimately, the trust could own 228 residential, business and public use structures in the extreme northeast corner of the state. The trust, created in 2004 to oversee a state-funded buyout of homes with children 6 and younger, lacks a charter on what to do with the land it plans to buy.

This left Jim Thompson, a new member of the trust in his first meeting, with a question.

``When we own that property,'' Thompson asked fellow trustees and state Environment Secretary Miles Tolbert, ``what are we going to do with that?''

``That's a good question,'' Tolbert replied.

The federal government spent about $150 million attempting to clean up the lead-and-zinc mining damage done to the area. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., pledged about $18 million to cover the costs of buying out people living over land likely to collapse.

Still, Tar Creek turns orange and toxic from mine drainage, mountains of lead-tainted waste tower over Picher and Cardin, and the subsidence threat remains regardless of a home's occupancy.

Earlier, the Oklahoma Plan for Tar Creek included more than $28 million in projects for mine closure, repair of collapsed areas and removal of lead-tainted lawns. Funds for the buyout, however, now are coming out of money originally earmarked for the plan.

The subsidence report presented to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January, which led to Inhofe's support of a federal buyout, contained a list of recommendations on what to do with land over the most undermined areas. Solutions varied from spending thousands putting fences around areas likely to collapse to $50 million to shore up potentially unstable land.

Ed Keheley, vice chairman of the trust and a member of the team that prepared the subsidence report, said there might be funding to remove some of the 50 million tons of mine tailings, but that was it.

J.D. Strong, Tolbert's chief of staff, said the trust might sell the land or donate it to another entity.

``The Quapaw Tribe expressed an interest in taking the land when the first buyout happened,'' Strong said. ``And at the time we were looking forward to the additional buyout and didn't explore it further.

``I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility for the trust to dispose of it.''

Finding a buyer for land that threatens public health, could collapse and could make the owner potentially responsible for funding any future federal cleanup, however, could be impossible. Strong said the trust could follow the example of the Ottawa Reclamation Authority, which it replaced.

The authority, created as mining wound down in the 1960s, took possession of land owned by the largest mining company, Eagle-Picher. When blotted out of existence July 1 by the Legislature's reconfiguring of the trust, the reclamation authority still held land in the area.

``They may end up holding it in perpetuity,'' Strong said.
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