PICHER, Okla. (AP) -- The Environmental Protection Agency isn't considering relocation for residents living near the Tar Creek Superfund site, but the agency is about to launch a remediation investigation and feasibility study.
There was speculation that the EPA would offer affected property owners buyouts as part of the ongoing cleanup of the site, the nation's oldest and most trouble.
"While we participated in the technical report, those recommendations are not EPA's recommendations, said Rafael Casanova, the agency's project manager. "EPA does have a relocation policy, but relocation wouldn't be considered by the EPA until a feasibility study is complete."
If relocation became a viable alternative, it is not known how it would be financed, Casanova said.
The feasibility study will may take more than two years to complete and will cost between $2 million and $6 million.
As part of its study, the EPA also is negotiating with the Interior Department and six mining companies to determine their financial liability. All of the companies ceased lead and zinc mining operations in Ottawa County more than 30 years ago.
Oklahoma Secretary of Environment Brian C. Griffin said he supports the study, but believes that the process should not prevent residents from considering different options.
"This is a significant development because it represents the beginning of a plan to address new problems and the technical solutions to those problems," Griffin said this week.
He also said he hopes the study also will end what he calls the Bureau of Indian Affairs dilatory pace in lifting a moratorium on the sale of chat by Quapaw tribal members. Chat is the fine particles of mining residue.
According to a special notice letter issued recently by the EPA, chat contained the hazardous substances lead, zinc and cadmium at dangerous concentration levels.
Because that waste has migrated to other parts of the county as windblown dust and polluted rainwater runoff, it may pose a risk to human health and to the environment, the EPA said.
The state wants the chat, a valuable road-building material, to be sold and removed. The BIA for more than two years has blocked the removal of chat on Indian-owned land.
The new study will assess the environmental and health risks posed by the abandoned mine shafts, mill ponds and the 50 million cubic yards of chat within a 40-square mile area near the Missouri and Kansas borders.
It also will pinpoint remedies, including the possibility of constructing wetlands where Picher and Cardin are. From the time it was first suggested last fall in Gov. Frank Keating's Tar Creek Task Force report, that scenario has sparked questions and triggered anxiety among townspeople.
By naming the six mining companies and the Interior Department as potentially responsible parties in the cleanup, the EPA is opening the door to partial payment for what is estimated to be a $200 million-plus project.
The mining companies include ASARCO, Inc. and Blue Tee Corporation of New York, N.Y.; Childress Royalty Company, Inc. of Joplin, Mo.; The Doe Run Resources Corporation of St. Louis; Gold Fields Mining Corp. of Golden, Colo.; and NL Industries, Inc., of Houston.
James Costello, senior attorney with the EPA, said he is negotiating with the mining companies to determine the extent of their involvement in the project's next phase. The companies have cooperated in the past, he said.
Gary Uphoff, a mining company representative, said no decisions have been made about whether to participate in the feasibility study.
In 1991, the six companies paid $1.2 million in a settlement pertaining to the first phase of the Tar Creek cleanup. It focused on ground and surface water contamination from mine acid drainage.
Another mining company, Eagle-Picher, paid $950,000 to the EPA in 1995 in the third phase of the Superfund project involving a chemical cleanup.
If an agreement is reached, the mining companies will carry out the remediation investigation and feasibility study with EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality oversight, Costello said.
The Quapaw Tribe has its concerns, however.
Tabitha Worley, the tribe's environmental director, said the Quapaws are concerned that the Interior Department's involvement may jeopardize their attempt to pursue a Natural Resource Damage Assessment claim as provided for under the Superfund and Clean Water Act.