PICHER - Residents within the Tar Creek Superfund site and those working to remove them from their environmentally devastated surroundings have sent a resounding message of disappointment to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA hosted a two-hour public comment opportunity Tuesday which drew a steady stream of criticisms of the agency's proposed plan to remove chat piles, restore stream beds and remediate property within the former mining district.
Residents, along with municipal, county and state leaders, are asking the EPA to shift its focus away from issues of chat and make relocation of residents a priority.
“I am so disappointed in EPA,” said Susie Stone, a longtime business owner. “When did selling chat become more important than people?”
Stone's words reiterated statements made early in the evening by Dr. Mark Osborn, vice chairman of the Lead Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust.
“It is with profound disappointment that the Lead Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust has learned of the decision by the EPA to omit funding for the voluntary relocation of the residents of the Tar Creek Superfund site in its current proposal for Operational Unit 4,” Osborn said as he read from a prepared statement. “We would suggest that the list of priorities should start with public safety and health and, subsequent to the buyout, should be refocused to limit environmental damage to the watershed. In this setting, there would be o pressure to push chat sales past economic realities and the process of chat removal and the permanent storage of fines can be explored at a safe, rational and commercially viable pace.”
The two-phase plan is projected to take 20 years to complete - provided the EPA has $172 million in hand by the end of the year. EPA officials said that, if the necessary funding was in place this year, the interest on the account would likely carry the project through to its projected end.
J.D. Strong, chief of staff to the secretary of the environment, also stepped up to the microphone and confirmed that the state currently does not support the EPA's proposal and will not do so until the plan provides a strategy for getting people out of harms way.
Sam Coleman, director of the EPA Region 6 Superfund Division, said he “clearly” heard the message sent - to move relocation to the top of the agency's priority list.
“We are going to take that to heart,” Coleman said.