Draft of federal report endorses relocating residents

Sunday, May 4th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Some residents who live in the Tar Creek Superfund site are encouraged by a long-awaited federal report that endorses former Gov. Frank Keating's plan to relocate homeowners.

A draft of the unreleased report, made available to the Tulsa World, is dated August 2002. But a source, who asked not to be identified, expressed confidence the report still represents the consensus opinion of the federal team assigned to review the Keating plan proposed in 2001.

The newspaper reported the development in Sunday's editions.

Tar Creek, a former lead and zinc-mining hub in northeastern Oklahoma, is one of the nation's oldest Superfund sites. It poses a multitude of threats that include mine collapses, open mine shafts, mountains of lead-laden mine waste and acid mine water that stains Tar Creek orange.

Keating's proposal called for residents to be relocated and the site turned into a 10,000-acre wetlands.

The federal report calls Keating's plan an "innovative concept," which could create a cultural and economic resource for Oklahoma.

"The real winners in this decision are the children," John Sparkman, director of the Picher Housing Authority and chairman of the Tar Creek Basin Steering Committee, told The Associated Press on Sunday.

"It's probably something that should have been done decades ago," he said.

Children in the area, which is littered with piles of mining waste contaminated with lead and zinc, sometimes have trouble in school with reading and comprehension, Sparkman said.

"Generations of children have been deprived a decent education because of this," he said.

The report says one of the more sensitive issues is the relocation of the approximately 2,000 residents of Picher and Cardin, which sit amid piles of contaminated mine waste known as chat.

"This is an emotional issue for the residents," the report states, conceding that not all support relocation and, even among those who do, there is division whether to be moved as individuals or as communities.

"The final decision regarding the relocation can only be made after these communities have had the opportunity to assess the facts and consider their options," the report said.

There's not much to consider for Gary Garrett, 60, a business owner in Cardin, who has lived in the town most of his life.

"I'd leave in a heartbeat," Garrett said. "But it's the responsibility of everyone in Cardin to ensure that no one, not one person, not one family, falls through the cracks.

"People's lives are tied to here and they have to have enough money to get out and maintain their living."

Many of the homes in the area cannot be sold, because lending agencies will not give loans to people buying in the contaminated area.

Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., plans to introduce legislation this week for a voluntary buyout for Tar Creek residents. He estimates it would cost about $50 million to buy out residents of Picher and Cardin.

About 30,000 people live in the five towns located within the 40-square-mile site.

The report favors a voluntary relocation for a number of reasons, including the enormous piles of chat that dot the landscape and continue to pose a risk of future contamination.

At the current rate of removal, according to the report, the chat, whose private ownership presents another issue, would not be removed for another 50 years, and despite efforts by EPA, children could still be potentially exposed to lead contamination.

Because of this, getting residents out the area is even more crucial, Sparkman said.

"We can sit around and argue about what we are going to do on the environmental side," Sparkman said. "But we can't make these people and kids suffer. We've got to make a decision for them, and then argue about what we are going to do."

Already about $100 million has been spent on remediation, including the removal of lead-contaminated soil from yards after children showed dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

The Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Interior agreed last week to develop a comprehensive solution to deal with health, safety and environmental hazards at the site.

Their memorandum of understanding, supported by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., called for the agencies to appoint representatives to a federal Tar Creek Steering Committee and work with tribal, state and local governments.

Inhofe, who has not supported buyouts, said the understanding would speed the cleanup by ending years of interagency infighting.

Inhofe declined comment when asked by the World about the study on the Keating plan. Paul Sund, spokesman for Gov. Brad Henry, said the governor and other state officials also declined to comment until the report is released officially.

The EPA hopes to release a final version in the next two weeks.

"This is the first comprehensive technical and scientific evaluation of Tar Creek," Carson told the newspaper. "This report should be seen as a road map for future action on Tar Creek, and I pledge myself to implement all of its recommendations."