Congressman Brad Carson calls Tar Creek buyout `drastic' but necessary

Friday, May 2nd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ A federal buyout of residents in the Tar Creek Superfund Site is the only way to protect many of them from its dangers, Rep. Brad Carson says.

Carson, D-Okla., announced legislation for a voluntary buyout Thursday, just as three federal agencies signed an agreement to take responsibility for cleaning up the languishing northeast Oklahoma site.

The agreement will expedite the cleanup by ending years of inter-agency wrangling, said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who has not supported buyouts. Inhofe is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

``The EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and, most importantly, the Department of Interior, are now officially admitting responsibility for the cleanup,'' Inhofe said. The agreement ``signifies the beginning of a responsible, cooperative effort.''

The three agencies agreed to develop a comprehensive solution to address health, safety and environmental hazards at the site.

Under a memorandum of understanding, they will appoint representatives to a federal Tar Creek Steering Committee and work with tribal, state and local governments.

The agreement did not obligate the agencies to provide cleanup funds.

Carson dismissed the memorandum of understanding as bureaucratic ``mumbojumbo,'' his spokesman said.

He planned to outline his legislation Friday at the 5th National Conference on Tar Creek in Miami.

Even if every hazardous substance could be removed from the site, ``it would still be years before meaningful results could be achieved, and this only at the cost of millions and millions of dollars,'' Carson said Thursday.

The risk of mine cave-ins, open mine shafts, the acid mine water that has turned Tar Creek orange and dust from mountains of lead-contaminated mine waste would still exist, he said.

``There would still remain the fact that every health expert I have talked to ... says that Tar Creek will never _ I repeat, never _ be made a healthy place to live,'' Carson said.

About 30,000 people live in the five towns located within the Superfund site. Carson estimated a voluntary buyout could cost about $50 million.

He said his legislation would guarantee fair market value on the property of residents who choose to leave, ``without the obvious depreciation for being located in a Superfund site.''

``This is an extraordinary remedy, but Tar Creek is an extraordinary case,'' he said.

The former lead and zinc mining site has been on the Superfund list for two decades. About $100 million has already been spent on remediation, including the removal of lead-contaminated soil from yards after children showed dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

Much of the 40 square-mile site falls on Indian land for which the Interior Department negotiated leases for mining companies and handled royalties. A spokesman for Inhofe's committee said the agency previously had not taken responsibility for aiding in the cleanup.

The agencies' agreement ``will help ensure a coordinated, effective, federal commitment to clean up the Tar Creek Superfund Site and protect local communities plagued by contamination from the site,'' said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

State officials have been awaiting a report from the White House Council on Environmental Quality on former Gov. Frank Keating's proposal to turn the site into a wetlands.

Carson said he believes the report has not been released because it supports the federal relocation of the towns of Picher and Cardin.

``I believe that any team of technical experts, such as the CEQ, will have to conclude that relocation must be done to ensure the safety of Tar Creek residents,'' he said.

Carson said Tar Creek is not a partisan issue, adding ``when the tragic chronicle of Tar Creek is written, Republican Gov. Frank Keating will emerge as a hero.''