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Residents Escape Tornado-Stricken Superfund Mining Town
OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma, May 21, 2008 (ENS) - Already living with lead dust from piles of mine waste, residents of the mining town at the center of one of America's largest Superfund sites were hit by a tornado that swept across northeast Oklahoma and southwest Missouri on May 10.

Now nothing is left of the town of Picher, Oklahoma except wreckage and about 800 residents eager to start life over somewhere else.

They will have some money to do that courtesy of the federal government.

U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe and Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry announced Tuesday that $8 million in federal funds would go to the state of Oklahoma to speed the buyout and relocation of residents of the town of Picher, located in the center of the Tar Creek Superfund Site.

Senator Inhofe said, "This $8 million in federal funds will be first used to assist the victims of the May 10 tornado in the Picher area. I have been assured by Governor Henry and the [Lead Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance] Trust that these tornado victims will be moved to the top of the buyout list.

"As I toured the area on two separate occasions, once on the morning following the tornado and the second time with Secretary [Michael] Chertoff of Homeland Security, David Paulison, director of FEMA, Governor Brad Henry and Congressman Dan Boren, it became obvious that this funding must be expedited," the senator said.

View from atop a chat pile. The residential areas of these towns are dotted with giant piles of mine waste, or chat. (Photo courtesy Quapaw Tribe

Governor Henry said that at a critical time for the residents of Picher, everyone worked together to secure the resources necessary to quickly complete the relocation effort.

"After the environmental dangers of Tar Creek and the deadly May 10 tornado, it would have been unconscionable to ask the people of Picher to wait months or years to wait on a buyout program. They survived the nightmare, and we hope they can emerge from these trying times and ultimately make a better life for themselves and their families," the governor said.

The nightmare persists in the form of piles of mining waste called chat piles left behind by the mining companies. Taller than a house, these waste piles contain lead dust that has blown around the town. Elevated blood lead levels in Picher children have led to learning disabilities and other problems.

The waste lead and zinc have seeped into groundwater, ponds, and lakes, many of which still are used by children for swimming. Since the children of Picher have been found to have elevated levels of lead in their bodies, the EPA has since declared Picher to be one of the most toxic areas in the United States.

Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will make the federal funds available to the Oklahoma Department of Environment Quality in two segments.

The first segment of $3 million was specifically directed by Congress for the relocation of Picher, Cardin and Hockerville residents.

The second segment of $5 million is being made available through the federal Superfund program for the buyout of residents, and demolition or relocation of homes, businesses, and public use structures in the disaster area.

"We appreciate Senator Inhofe’s leadership in securing additional funds to assist these communities," said EPA Regional Administrator Richard Greene. "We are working closely with Oklahoma officials and the Relocation Trust to ensure that the victims of the tornado get the help they need."

Dr. Mark Osborn, vice chairman of the Relocation Trust, said, "We are overwhelmingly grateful as a Trust for the work of Senator Inhofe and Governor Henry in securing this funding so quickly. We will use it as best we can to benefit the people affected by the recent tragedy in Picher and further the mission of the relocation trust."

The U.S. EPA listed the Tar Creek Superfund site on its National Priorities List in 1983. The site is located in northeast Oklahoma and is part of the 1,188 square mile historic zinc and lead mines known as the Tri-State Mining District in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.

In February, the U.S. EPA, together with Oklahoma environment officials and the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, completed the final $167 million cleanup plan for the Tar Creek Superfund site.

Much of the land on the Tar Creek Superfund site is allotted Indian Land. The towns of Picher, Cardin, Commerce, North Miami and Quapaw are also part of the site. Approximately 19,000 people live in the communities surrounding the Superfund site, which puts them at risk for lead poisoning.

The cleanup plan includes funding for the voluntary relocation of residents and businesses located in Picher, Cardin and Hockerville through the state of Oklahoma's Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust.

It also includes chat sales, and disposal of source materials in a manner that will reduce the overall footprint of contamination and reduce the need for land use restrictions, institutional controls, and operation and maintenance.

"This master plan will ensure a coordinated commitment to permanently clean up the Tar Creek Superfund site," said Greene in February. "It is a long-awaited step in finalizing work to clean up one of the nation's largest Superfund sites, and I am pleased to be part of this monumental occasion."

The final cleanup plan addresses contamination posed by the chat piles, other mine and mill waste, and smelter waste in the 40-square mile former lead and zinc mining area.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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