Did the Federal Government Fail Treece, Kansas, and Picher, Oklahoma?

Abandoned high school mascot statue sitting in a make-shift memorial in Picher, Oklahoma in 2018.

I’ve been to Treece, Kansas, and Picher, Oklahoma, three times in my life. Once, in 2008 on a summer road trip with my grandparents. An EF4 tornado had just struck Picher. I was six years old.

The second time I visited was in 2018. So much of what I remembered from the first visit had disappeared.

I visited for the third time this past week. The two towns were nothing but a shell of what they used to be. While disappointed, a distinct high school mascot stood out to me — the Picher-Cardin Gorillas.

According to The Oklahoman, the Picher-Cardin Gorillas won a state championship in 1984. This date is proudly boasted by their town statue that now serves as a memorial of what used to be. Yet, a warning for the town came the same year as this championship win.

In 1984, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Treece and Picher as environmentally hazardous, naming the location as the Tar Creek Superfund site. The EPA began its first stages of “investigating and cleaning up” dangerous pollutants in the area.

While the EPA warned of these dangers, residents continued life as usual, but at what price?

To this day, only one public study on health problems related to the lead contaminants in Treece and Picher has been done. A 2009 report by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment found that 8.8 percent of Treece children had elevated traces of lead in their blood. One child even tested positive for lead poisoning.

The 2009 study on Treece leaves questions. What did the government do to help prevent health problems for Treece and Picher residents? In each case, the government opted to relocate residents.

Relocation came sooner for Picher residents. In 2004, the state of Oklahoma presented a plan to rehabilitate Picher. This plan transformed in 2006 and became a buyout plan for residents to receive money to relocate from Picher. By 2009, residents had nearly all relocated, the high school had closed, and many buildings were left destroyed from the recent tornado.

Unfortunately, Treece residents were not so lucky. While Treece residents suffered the same environmental problems as Picher, the guarantee for residents to receive a buyout didn’t come until 2010. Congress did not approve the total buyout until 2014, which was two years after the town was deemed unincorporated.

While the EPA is currently working with the Quapaw Tribe to clean up Treece and Picher, the inconsistencies and failures to act sooner still linger. While the government’s efforts began in 1984, the government waited for over twenty years to relocate residents from hazardous conditions. The government also failed to do in-depth tests to study any possible health problems correlating to the towns’ toxicity.

Additionally, recent lawsuits have come to light with former Picher residents suing an appraisal company for low-balling the amounts on their property buyouts. Because the buyouts were run by the government, there could be speculation that the government is to blame for these low amounts. However, that is unclear.

What is clear is that the EPA failed to act faster in its efforts to fix the Tar Creek Superfund site. While they have now made strides, its original efforts failed to adequately account for the relocation of residents with proper funds. Now, Picher and Treece sit side-by-side on the highway, with only a gorilla statue to remind people of what used to be.

Listen more about Treece and Picher’s story on my new podcast, Ghosted in America available on Spotify.

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Journalism student at the University of Kansas | Ghosted in America Podcast Host

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Abby Peeler

Abby Peeler

Journalism student at the University of Kansas | Ghosted in America Podcast Host

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