The toxic ghost town of Picher, Oklahoma

From ToxicLeaks

History of mining[edit | edit source]

The small town of Picher, Oklahoma, sits at the American state’s border with neighboring Kansas. In the early 1900s, it became a center of lead and zinc mining that was at first conducted on small 20- to 40-acre tracts. Rapid expansion of mining activity marked the 1920s, with peak activity in 1925, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency; large mills took over in the 1930s and lasted until the 1958, when large-scale underground mining stopped. Smaller mining operations continued into the 1960s, and all lead and zinc mines in Picher ceased during the 1970s, but the damage was already done.

One feature of the mines included horizontal tunnels, some with ceilings as high as 100 feet, that were used to remove the underground ore from depths up to 385 feet. The tunnels connected to a series of rooms held up by pillars beneath the city. This became a factor when government authorities realized much of the town was on the verge of collapse because of cave-ins of the abandoned tunnel system beneath it – and it became as fatal a blow to the town as the toxic exposure to the mining by-products.

At the height of its economic growth, Picher was home to 20,000 people, many of whom worked in what was then the richest lead and zinc mining field in the world; others commuted from nearby Missouri on special trolleys. By 2015, though, the town was abandoned and 60-year-old pharmacist Gary Linderman died, as did Picher’s last business with him. In the end, you could count the diehards on your fingers, because most of the people in America’s most toxic town had left. A tornado finished Picher off in 2009.

Designation as Superfund site[edit | edit source]

By 1983, the staggering toll of the mining operations was evident. That year, the EPA declared a 40-square-mile area of the Tar Creek area a federal Superfund site with Picher at the epicenter. The creek water was burned red by acidic water seeping from the underground tunnels. Mountains of toxic “chat,” a chalky, dusty white byproduct of the lead mines, had become a normal feature of the landscape.

That lead had powered American military might in World War I and II, but now these 150-foot mountains – some as wide as four football fields – were an environmental hazard. Before anyone knew that, kids played on the piles and rode their bikes through the dust. People used chat to fill in their driveways and even their children’s sandboxes. A summer day at the local swimming hole left people with chemical burns from the arsenic and cadmium, and the government had made cleanup a priority. The mining companies themselves were bankrupt and disbanded, and Superfund was the solution.

The EPA established five key goals. First, surface water degradation from acid mine water, which was a threat to the entire region’s aquifer. By 1986, 83 abandoned wells were plugged, and runoff was diverted from entry points on the Kansas side where toxic water was getting into the aquifer layers.

Next came residential areas. More than 2,846 yards and public areas had been remediated by 1997 in Picher, surrounding towns and the Quapaw tribal lands. Sadly, that came after a school counselor learned of the link between lead poisoning and learning disabilities. The entire Picher school sat in the middle of a toxic waste dump, and 46 percent of the children tested had unsafe blood levels of lead. By 2004, the state government had approved a relocation program for families with children under age 7.

A third focus was on abandoned laboratory chemicals, while a fourth attempted to address long-term regional surface water and sediment risks in a process that continues today. Another looks at removing more than 100,000 tons of chat dumped at the Quapaw tribal lands. The last put 34,600 tons of “clean” chat underground in the abandoned mine shafts and tunnels, and another 40,000 tons in a trench-road system. Still, the contamination of water and soil in residential areas meant that relocation was needed. The state program was expanded, and the federal government began buying out residents in 2006.

Failure of remediation[edit | edit source]

Peer-reviewed research published in 2007 placed the total cost of remediation as high as USD$61.3 billion, but the authors were physicians more interested in the public health impacts. “Much of the surface of the Tar Creek Superfund Site is an alien landscape,” they said, marked by an estimated 165 million tons of toxic mine tailings piled up next to houses and schools. The soil in gardens had eight times the lead, 10 times the cadmium and even higher levels of iron than a control community; two thirds of the soil from more than 2,000 homes was above the action level for lead. Manganese was found at “several orders of magnitude higher” than the maximum EPA standard for safe drinking water.

In 2000, frustrated by a lack of progress, then-governor Frank Keating appointed a task force to assess the long-term prospects of the area. The final report: The place was unlivable. The town needed to be evacuated.

Ultimately, beyond the daunting challenge and stunning expense, the remediation of Picher was doomed by the underground tunnels beneath its residents. In 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified 286 high-risk locations in Picher and two adjacent communities, all threatened by the collapse of aging tunnels beneath them. More left, and the cave-ins and sinkholes were – almost – the final blow.

Tornado and exodus[edit | edit source]

On May 10, 2008, Picher was hit by a powerful EF-4 tornado. The storm killed seven people, left 150 injured, destroyed about 20 blocks of the city and erased another 150 homes. Rebuilding in Picher was no longer an option, so federal assistance supported the relocation of many of the town’s last residents.

The storm also launched a new round of EPA tests to determine how the 165- to 175-miles per hour winds scattered even more of the toxic chat and raised lead levels in the air and soil. By the next May, the high school held its final graduation, and the town of Picher ceased to exist in September 2009.

Picher today[edit | edit source]

The Oklahoma border town is abandoned, desolate and – without any need for utilities – dark. The eerie silence is broken only by trucks hauling away piles of pollution. Demolition of the entire town began in 2011. Overgrown and weedy streets, abandoned churches, looted stores and weathered homes in the wind are all that remain. Even the birdsong is diminished: Local reports say Picher is only home to wildlife now, but 1,000 migratory birds were found dead in 2015 because of suspected zinc poisoning.