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Growing up in the Shadow of the Chat Piles

By Diane Wahto
Opinion | October 9, 2009

TREECE, Kan. - Reading about the problems of the residents of Treece, Kansas, takes me back to a day when Carol, my office mate, told me about her bus trip from Wichita through Missouri, a trip that took her through my home town of Baxter Springs, Kansas, a Southeast Kansas town five miles or so from both the Missouri and Oklahoma border.

As Carol talked about the sights she saw on the trip, she asked about some hills she'd seen near Baxter Springs. "Are those the foothills of the Ozarks?"

I tried to place where hills near Baxter Springs would be. The road to Baxter Springs from Wichita is hilly, and toward Joplin, Missouri, the back roads become hilly again. Just outside of Baxter Springs, though, the land is flat, marked only by pastures dotted with a few grazing cows and to the west, a small national cemetery where the Union soldiers killed in Quantrill's raid are buried.

I asked if she was talking about the hills east of Baxter Springs. No, she said, she had seen tall mounds just west of the town, rising out of a flat, dusty plain. Then I knew. She had seen the chat piles.

These huge piles of what look like fine gravel dot the countryside of Southeast Kansas, Northeast Oklahoma, and Southwest Missouri, the so-called Lead Belt of the United States. Chat and the other waste product of lead mining, tailings, are produced when rock is ground up or run through a wet process to separate the ore from the surrounding rock. Anyone who grew up around these areas would be familiar with the mounds of chat and many of those people, as did my brothers and me, probably climbed on those piles and played around them, little realizing that we were exposing ourselves to dangerous levels of lead and other toxic chemicals.

The lead mines were a daily part of my life from the time I could remember. Both my grandfathers, two of my uncles, and my dad worked in the mine in Baxter Springs, as did Mickey Mantle and his dad before the Mick went off to play for the New York Yankees.

My father's father, John Wesley Daniels, died of brown lung disease, a disease brought on by breathing lead-contaminated dust. I have no memory of him, as he died before I was born, but I do have a black and white photo of him, a dashing bantam of a man astride a horse at the mine where he was a supervisor. When he died, he left a wife, a son, my dad, and a daughter, my dad's younger sister, to fend for themselves. My dad, just out of high school, mowed lawns in exchange for food for his family. Then, he went to work in the lead mines.

When I was five or six years old, I would sit at the kitchen table watching my dad get ready for work, a bologna sandwich in his lunch pail, hot coffee in his thermos, and his miner's hat with the lamp on the front perched on his head. Every morning, my mom prepared his lunch and coffee in silence in our little kitchen in the unpainted wooden house located just a few blocks from the mine. My mom's sister and her family lived on one side of us, and my mom's brother and his family lived on the other side of us. As the sun came up, all the men walked off together to work in the mine down the street.

As I watched my dad leave, I shuddered with fear. I knew he worked underground in a dark, dank place, from which he and my uncles would emerge at the end of the day, their faces grimed with sweat and dust.

My dad eventually left the mines to start driving for Yellow Transit Freight Lines. The work was hard, but he could stay on terra firma, not underneath it, and it paid well.

Typical of fathers of his era, my dad didn't spend a lot of time with us kids. He did seem to think it was his duty to teach us certain skills. Even though I was a girl, he taught me to drive when I was 13 years old. I figured if I could survive his home-grown, profanity-laced driver's ed, I could survive anything.

He also taught all three of us to shoot. Every so often, he drove out to the chat piles, set up cans and bottles in front of them, and give us the .22. We would aim and fire, one hoped in the direction of the cans and bottles and the chat. I don't remember how well my brothers did, but I was such a bad shot that later in life when I went hunting with my first husband, Bambi and Thumper were safe when I was in the woods.

Sometimes after we finished target practice, we would climb on the chat piles, ignoring the danger of the shifting gravel-like substance beneath our feet. Later, when my friends and I became bored, we would drive out to the piles and have contests to see who could get the farthest up the hill.

As kids growing up in a small town, we had a lot of freedom to roam where we wanted with no parental interference. The one thing our parents cautioned against, however, was wading in what we called "The Alkali Creek," the streamlet that flowed rust red behind our grade school. Usually the stream was shallow and the flat rocks in the stream bed were perfect for stepping on in a game of red stream chicken. We knew that the water was dangerous, but we didn't know why. As it turned out, that stream was full of toxic lead residue flowing out of the waste left from the mines.

The lead mines played out in the late '50s. The communities that didn't die had to find other ways for people to earn a living. The mine owners left their fortunes and their big, beautiful houses in Baxter Springs to their sons and daughters, who took their inheritances and moved to more pleasant surroundings.

Fast forward to 2009. The residents of Treece want the EPA to buy their houses so they can move to place that's not contaminated and filled with sinkholes. Treece is a little town just down the road from my home town. Picher, Oklahoma, a tiny spot on the road that we used to drive through on our way to shop in Miami, Oklahoma, has already been bought and paid for by the EPA. Galena, Kansas, a town between Baxter Springs and Joplin, Missouri, another shopping destination, has always looked like it survived a nuclear bomb hit, with huge holes and pits dotting the arid landscape in and around the town. Not too long ago, a building collapsed into one of those holes, taking with it the owner's pet parrot. Fortunately, the parrot was rescued and I presume the owner found another, less dangerous place to live.

Now, the U.S. government, that entity hated by many ordinary citizens today, is left to bail out the victims, clean up the mess, and take the fall for mining practices that left whole communities in a state of environmental and scenic ugliness. The EPA has issued warnings against using the chat for road building and other commercial enterprises. Government efforts to do something about the chat piles began in earnest after a 1993 study found that 34 percent of the children tested in Picher had blood lead levels exceeding 10 micrograms per deciliter, considered by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention the point at which there is a risk of brain or nervous system damage, according to an article in a July 21, 2000, issue of The New York Times.

Dion Leffler, writing in the Oct. 9, 2009, Wichita Eagle said, "Residents of the mine-polluted town of Treece have about 60 percent more lead in their bloodstream than the average Kansan, according to the results of medical tests performed last month." Studies taken from 2005 to 2008 showed that 8.8% of children have lead levela of more than 10, compared with 3.8% of the children in Cherokee County and 2.9% of the children in the state as a whole.

Americans are now involved in a debate that pits economic interests against environmental safety and preservation. While that debate seems abstract to many, the realities of the contamination and health risks posed by the once-lucrative lead mines are all too concrete to people who are losing their homes, their communities, and their health.


Thanks for providing such a human and historical view on this problem some of us, like me, have only heard talked about in the news in sort of cold and factual ways. You've really shared how this situation is part of Kansas history, its past and its present.

Thanks, Pamela. I think we need to see how real people are affected by these abstract environmental issues in order to take action for the future.

I grew up in Pittsburg, Kansas so I am well aware of the Chat piles of Treece, Galena, and southeast Kansas. I recently had a conversation with my mom about how all of our school playgrounds were covered with that chat from those chat piles that had lead and zinc in them. The edges of the chat were very sharp and when you fell down on the playground you usually got chat imbedded in your knees and elbows. Guess it was a way of recyling the chat in the 1950's and 1960's, but I know it wouldn't be allowed in today's world!
Thanks for the article.

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