EPA concerned about damage in Picher, OK
Last Update: 5/12 9:47 pm
PICHER, Okla. (AP) -- The reason most residents of Picher won't be able to rebuild their homes following a massive tornado is plainly visible from most parts of town.
Massive piles of lead and zinc mining waste -- known as chat piles -- tower above the landscape in far northeastern Oklahoma. The Environmental Protection Agency long ago declared the area to be a Superfund site, and many residents had already accepted state or federal buyout offers as the town's population dwindled to about 800.
A local fire official maintains that any residual mine waste stirred up by Saturday's storm that blew through the piles is not a concern for residents. Still, EPA scientists arrived in Picher on Monday to assess the environmental impact of the EF-4 tornado that killed six people in the town. Sixteen others died in Missouri and Georgia during the tornado outbreak.
Also arriving Monday were officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who began the process of determining whether the town's residents might qualify for federal assistance.
EPA spokesman Dave Berry said the strange nature of a massive tornado striking an area that already is an environmental disaster makes the Picher scenario unique.
"I'm not aware of any disaster similar to this in fact," he said.
The EPA set up a mobile command center and will try to determine how much lead-contaminated dust remains in the air. EPA spokeswoman Tressa Tillman said the air tests began Monday and that soil tests will start Tuesday. She said EPA scientists did a visual inspection of the area Monday.
"It does look like residential areas do have chat," she said.
Miles Tolbert, Oklahoma's secretary of the environment, said the expectation is that there is no immediate public health hazard to the people now working in the devastated area, but more testing is needed.
"You can look at the chat piles and see that a lot of the material has blown off," said John Sparkman, the executive director of the Picher Housing Authority. "We went up on a chat pile an hour and a half after the tornado hit, and you could see dust blowing fine material all over the place from that vantage point."
Long-term exposure to lead dust poses a health risk, particularly to young children. It is this risk, plus the danger of land caving in to old mining tunnels that makes Picher a national Superfund site.
Picher Fire Chief Jeff Reeves said the chat is, at most, a nuisance.
"These people live here every day," Reeves said. "It's no more a concern now than it was then" before the storm.
Officials from FEMA toured the town with local and state emergency management officials. They took about five minutes in one particularly hard-hit area of town to determine that every structure in that area had been destroyed. They soon moved to another area hit by the twister, stopping and talking with residents along the way.
Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten said FEMA had determined 101 homes in Picher had been destroyed. She said the FEMA officials will tour other areas in Ottawa County damaged by the tornado, which include the towns of Quapaw and Peoria.
She said a later request could be made for public assistance, which helps local governments with expenses associated with disasters. President Bush would have to issue any disaster declarations after FEMA conducts its research and makes its recommendation.
Typically, if a federal disaster declaration is declared that includes individual assistance, funding and loans can be provided to individuals and businesses affected by disasters.
FEMA spokesman Earl Armstrong said Picher's status as a Superfund site won't affect whether or not individual assistance might be approved.
"We're looking at it like any other town that got hit by a tornado," Armstrong said.
But there remains some question about how such money could be used, since federal officials aren't likely to allow residents to rebuild on a Superfund site. Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood has said that if individual assistance is granted, it will likely be for residents to relocate to another town.
The owners of some of the homes that were destroyed were waiting for assessments by or negotiating buyout offers with the federal government. Gov. Brad Henry and U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., both said Sunday that program will continue.
Homeowner Ralph Morris, who had rejected a previous buyout offer, took a philosophical approach about it all.
"The last year, we've been trying to ... make things right with the buyout. It seems like the government is hurting us more than helping us at this point.
"There's a lot of good people here. It's going to be rough leaving here. Maybe this is God's way of saying it's time to give up the fight."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
Story link -
More Story links -