Property owners struggle to sell in Tar Creek area

Sunday, February 22nd 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PICHER, Okla. (AP) _ When she started to hear people talk about lead contamination surrounding the Tar Creek Superfund Site, Peggy Starling moved from her northeast Oklahoma home to one in southeast Missouri.

But six years later, she still owns the three-bedroom home in Picher. She just doesn't live there anymore.

``I remember my daughter meeting some boys in another town and how the boys said, `Ugh. You're from Picher?''' Starling said. ``I got tired of hearing it. I lived with it all my life.

``Everyone thinks Picher is the worst place in the world. It has always been like that.''

Starling, 61, is one of hundreds of property owners in Picher and Cardin who want to sell out and get away from the Superfund site rated the worst in the country.

According to a 2002 survey by the Tar Creek Basin Steering Committee, 85 percent of the 600 people surveyed said they would be interested in a state or federal buyout if the offers were reasonable.

Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, has proposed a state buyout limited to about 100 families with children age 6 and younger. The governor's office says legislative leaders support his $5 million plan.

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., has said he opposes a government buyout. Instead, Inhofe has touted a private buyout.

But Starling's home does not qualify for the buyout plan. Even so, she's skeptical about whether a private buyout would bring a high enough offer.

``All I want is a reasonable price for a house that my family worked to pay for,'' said Starling, who lives in Joplin, Mo., about 25 miles northeast of Picher on the Missouri-Oklahoma border.

Inhofe announced in January that Raleigh, N.C.-based Cherokee Investment Partners would soon begin distributing buyout applications to homeowners in the area. The applications do not guarantee a purchase, said Jonathan Philips, a senior director of Cherokee Investment Partners.

Philips said the buyout applications could be issued before the end of the year.

``We have a draft of an application, and as soon as that is complete we will distribute them as widely as possible to the residents,'' Philips said. ``That will help us assess if we can have a role at Tar Creek.''

Henry has expressed concerns that a private buyout would not give a fair-market price for lead-contaminated properties in Picher and Cardin.

Henry's office has also said the private buyout, unlike the governor's plan, does not offer monetary relief for the school district, which would lose funds under a relocation plan.

Starling said she did not feel good about her chances for breaking even on her 34-year-old home in Picher. According to land records, the 1,208-square-foot house has a fair market value of $26,105.

``It's paid for, but I can't borrow money on the Picher home because no bank wants to touch it,'' Starling said, ``and I don't want to just give it away.''