NEW study to look at possible solutions for Tar Creek communities

Monday, July 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PICHER, Okla. (AP) _ A new study will look at the feasibility of relocating the residents of two communities and other possible solutions to the lead and zinc mining contamination that has plagued the region for years, officials said Monday.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of Picher and Cardin could take several years, residents were told at a public meeting at the Picher-Cardin High School.

``I think we have to have an answer within two years to survive,'' Picher Mayor Sam Freeman said.

Corps officials would not specify what they would study, but Picher leaders say relocation of the city and possibly turning the area into a wetlands are the only two options to discuss.

Picher and Cardin are located within a 40-square-mile area known as the Tar Creek Superfund site. Years of lead and zinc mining have resulted in contaminated yards and water, sink holes and piles of chat, a fine, gravel-like material left over from the mining.

The mining residue turned nearby Tar Creek orange and it no longer supports aquatic life. Tar Creek flows into the Neosho River, which dumps into Grand Lake in northeastern Oklahoma.

At about $75 million, it is one of the Environmental Protection Agency's most expensive environmental cleanup sites.

The corps continues overseeing yard remediation efforts, removing lead-contaminated soil from homes and businesses. But blood-lead levels remain high among many of the area's school children.

``We're going to try to do whatever possible they want us to do,'' corps spokesman Ross Adkins said of the study. ``We want them to tell us where they want to go with this.''

The study needs federal funding, although everything else is ready to start, Ross said.

Freeman said he can't wait to move forward on the issue.

``I'm 56 years old the third day of August, and I'd like to see something positive happen before I die,'' he said.

Freeman is concerned that his town is slowly dying. Sales tax revenue has decreased by $4,000 in the past three months, he said. Picher's number of utility customers also has dropped considerably in recent years.

``We've been through worse and probably will be through worse yet, but when you're stuck with so many problems . 5/8. 5/8. they're snowballing and we're rolling to the bottom of the hill,'' he said.

A state task force last year first publicized a possible land buyout and relocation of residents, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Continued lead and zinc cleanup efforts, however, could cost billions more, the study noted.

Freeman said he hasn't made up his mind about relocation, but he said a majority of his constituents at least want to look at that option.

``Nobody's trying to shove buyout-relocation down your throats,'' John Sparkman, Picher's Housing Authority director, told those at the meeting. ``We need to keep our options open.''

Picher-Cardin School Superintendent Bob Walker discussed recent tests that indicated unsafe blood-lead levels in many of the district's children. Slow reading levels could be the result of lead exposure, he said.

``The only thing that can't be disputed is there is plenty of lead around here,'' Walker said.