Treece, Kansas, doesn't exist anymore.
Founded in 1917 around a mining operation, the town served as a major supplier of lead, zinc, and iron ore for decades. But when the reserves dried up, the local economy collapsed. Then people started getting sick. The mining had made their own backyards turn toxic.
Residents left Treece in 2012 as part of a government-funded relocation program after the EPA named it one of the most environmentally devastated places in the country. Where churches, a city hall, and small businesses once stood, torn-up roads and murky, orange waters remain.
Before the exodus, photographer Dina Kantor traveled to Treece on numerous occasions to document a community that would soon cease to exist. She shared her journey with us.
A hundred years ago, a mining company truck broke down on its way to Oklahoma. The crew dug a hole to pass the time — so the story goes — and discovered a reserve of lead and zinc.
Treece, Kansas, was born. The town led zinc and lead production in the US by the 1920s, and supplied metal for most of the ammunition in World Wars I and II.
Luck ran out by the 1960s. The reserves dried up, and the mining companies went bankrupt or left, taking their employees with them. The population fell to 138 by 2010.
"It was a small town not unlike others in the middle of America," Kantor says. “Its residents [went] to church, gossiped with one another, and shopped at a local Wal-Mart."
"People lived in houses and mobile homes, and were always outside when I visited," Kantor says. They owned small businesses, worked in factories, and drove for trucking companies.
Heaps of "chat," or ground-up rock leftover from digging up precious minerals, created a striking backdrop. People rode ATVs in summer and sleds in winter over the piles.
But these manmade mountains served as a reminder that things were not good in Treece. Evidence mounted that the chat contained traces of lead.
Even the local Tar Creek flowed orange and smelled of vinegar. When it flooded the abandoned mine shafts years ago, it likely picked up toxins.
In 2009, an EPA report revealed 8.8% of children in Treece had elevated levels of lead in their blood, compared to 2.9% statewide. One child met the threshold for lead poisoning.
Nearly everyone seemed to know a friend or family member suffering from lupus, multiple sclerosis, thyroid disease, cancer, eczema, or emphysema, though no scientific investigations were ever conducted to explain why, according to The New York Times.
"I never had a single resident of Treece tell me they thought their personal health issues were related to mining," Kantor says. "And only one couple told me they worried about their home collapsing into a sinkhole."
Still, the evidence mounted. Some members of the community decided they would be better off leaving their homes. They petitioned the government for a buyout to help them evacuate.
"I think it's rare to see entire communities disappear," Kantor says, "but even more rare to watch one push for its own dissolution."
Of course, not everyone wanted to go. Some people figured, "they had lived there so long that they would already be exposed to [the health issues], so there wasn't much point in leaving," Kantor says.
In 2009, Congress passed a bill authorizing the EPA to spend roughly $3.5 million on the relocation. The buyout is now complete, with most residents settled in small towns in Kansas and Oklahoma, Kantor says.
Treece looks unrecognizable today, with homes demolished, the water tower broken down for scrap metal, and roads torn up. Even the land itself sold at an auction in 2014.
Kantor describes the ordeal as a roller coaster of emotions. "Some were happy to go," she says, "others still are nostalgic about the town they left behind."