- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

PICHER, Okla. — As bad as the recent coal mine disaster in West Virginia was, folks in this northeastern Oklahoma town fear that any day, at any time, they could see a situation even more gruesome — scores of homes, possibly even the city hall or high school, sucked into oblivion, down into abandoned mines under the town.

For many years, the Oklahoma residents of Picher, Cardin, Hockerville and Quapaw had been aware there might be some danger from the long-abandoned mine shafts and caverns underneath them.

But perhaps their main concern heretofore had been the health hazards caused by an estimated 75 million tons of mine waste — called “chat” — which has hardened over the years and pollutes the 43-square-mile area so intensely that millions already have been spent moving families out of the risk area.

“But this was the clincher,” said Gary Garrett, a semiretired electrician who lives in adjoining Cardin. “It should have been enough to get us out of here just on the health issues, but now everybody agrees not only it is not healthy to live here, but it’s not safe either.”

Mr. Garrett was referring to an in-depth study headed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, with participation by the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Interior Department, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and Geological Survey.

Results of this 18-month “subsidence” study were released two weeks ago before a jammed gymnasium at Picher-Cardin High School. It stunned even some of the more optimistic locals.

The study identified 286 sites where mine shafts and caverns were in danger of collapse. Clearly endangered, the experts said, were 162 occupied homes, 18 businesses, 16 public facilities and 33 locations beneath major highways or streets.

Privately, some of the scientists said the report was “on the conservative side” because mining maps were incomplete and investigations were hampered considerably by toxic water, which had filled many caverns.

Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe, chairman of the Senate’s Environmental and Public Works Committee, helped formulate and fund the recent $1.8 million study — the first that ever included all interested parties and groups — and said there should be meetings “soon” to determine what should be done, how and by whom.

Many of those at the town meeting earlier this month opined that the federal government should be responsible.

“The state also has a responsibility,” Mr. Inhofe said recently. “We are all in this together.”

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, said he felt the federal government should be responsible for relocation costs for those severely affected. He said he wanted to “work with the senator and hopefully develop a federal program to deal with that.”

John Sparkman, director of the Picher Housing Authority, said he was not surprised at the report’s severity but said it “solidified” his concerns about those who lived in the town’s federally subsidized complex.

“The structures are brick,” said Mr. Sparkman, “and subsidence, even if it is slight, could cause significant structural damage and cause injury.”

About a year ago, one old mining shaft began to sink, causing the housing authority to evacuate two duplexes and fence off part of the area.

In the past few days, state highway crews have been digging trenches along major highways, including I-69, where a minor cave-in occurred several months ago, to try to determine how safe the roads are. Some heavy truck traffic is being routed around the area,

The report renewed the biggest controversy surrounding the environmental disaster area called the Tar Creek Superfund zone — that of buyouts and relocating families.

A few months ago, the state legislature authorized a $3 million buyout plan to purchase the properties of all those in the risk area with children 6 years old or younger. A total of 186 adults and children were moved, abandoning 40 homes.

Some, like Mr. Garrett, who just found out his home is one of those endangered, hope some agency will pay a fair price for his property so he and his wife can leave. “I want out; that’s all there is to it.”

The “government knew about this situation” years ago, he said, but “they didn’t tell us. Now we need help.”

Mr. Inhofe, who has been quite active in organizing a response team, has admitted that some relocations need to be done. He long has been against a government-sponsored voluntary buyout of homeowners.

Danny Finnerty, Mr. Inhofe’s communications director, who has worked closely on the continuing problems here, represented the senator at the town meeting when the subject came up.

“I was asked if a possible buyout was back on the table,” said Mr. Finnerty, “and I said, ‘Yes, because now we have solid science on which to make some decisions on as opposed to just this urban myth that had been created around there for 20 years.’” He called the study “a scientific starting point.”

He explained that Mr. Inhofe’s opposition to a voluntary buyout was because, in all probability, some would choose to remain and the area would have to be cleaned up anyway, costing many additional millions.

From the early 1900s until the late 1970s, this site was the world’s top producer of lead and zinc. Most mines had their own mills. Milling the ore resulted in stacks of “chat” that have accumulated as high as 200 feet and remain dotted throughout the area.

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality suggested that the chat — which contains elevated concentrations of lead, zinc, iron and cadmium — be utilized by being mixed with asphalt to pave many miles of unpaved roads in the area. It should be used to fill abandoned mine shifts also, the agency said.

“By using chat-based asphalt to pave these roads,” one DEQ directive said, “the volume of chat will be reduced, lead dust generation will be suppressed and health risks will be mitigated.”

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