Oklahoma’s Environmentally Toxic Ghost Town

Only an hour and a half drive northwest of Siloam Springs, there once existed a town of comparable population. Today, Picher, Oklahoma is gone. So gone, in fact, that it is beyond a ghost town. Most of its main street buildings have been torn down, and all that remains are empty, overgrown lots. The dozens of blocks of what used to be small town suburbia are now boggy wasteland, flooded hollows pockmarking the landscape in the midst of cracking concrete and low, twisted trees more akin to weeds. The waters of Tar Creek run red. However, it is not these features of Picher that seize one’s attention first—no, it is the massive gray hills of toxic waste looming like the dunes of some great desert. Welcome to one of the most toxic places in America, the site of a monstrous environmental disaster decades in the making.

In 1913, Picher—a mining boomtown—formed around a lead and zinc ore strike on land belonging to Harry Crawfish, a full-blood member of the Quapaw tribe. It was named after O.S. Picher, owner of the Picher Lead Company. In its heyday in the 1920s, the town’s population reached nearly 20,000 people, 14,000 of which were resident miners. Picher produced a staggering $20 billion in ore from 1917 to 1947. During both World Wars, 50% of all American bullets and bombshells were made from metals mined in Picher alone. The gray hills dominating Picher’s landscape are piles of toxic chat—crushed limestone, dolomite and silica-laden sedimentary rock—leftovers after the separation of metal ore. By the time mining ceased in 1967, there were approximately 178 million tons of chat, mill sand and sludge in roughly 30 massive piles scattered in and around Picher. The chat piles became an important aspect of the local culture. Children and adults alike played on the piles, picnicking, riding 4-wheelers—the high school track team even used them for training. Nobody knew of the risks, the terrible toll the mining detritus was already taking.

When the mining ceased in 1967, the pumping of water from the mines ceased as well, and the mines filled with water, accumulating to 76,800 acre-feet of subterranean water. The contaminated water began to seep from the mines in 1973. When Tar Creek ran red in the late 1970s—the consequence of pollution from lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic, iron and manganese—the citizens of Picher began to realize something was horribly wrong and started avoiding the creek. What they didn’t yet realize was that the town’s celebrated chat piles were already slowly poisoning them. Even for those who didn’t come in close contact with the piles themselves, dust from the piles was often carried on the wind.

Karen Sue Harvey, 60 years old, lived in Picher from 1960 to 2002. As a child, she played on the chat piles and swam in contaminated ponds in the area. “We’d go swimming in them, and our hair would turn orange and it wouldn’t wash out,” Harvey said in a 2014 interview with NBC.

When she was 18, she had surgery to rectify bone growth in her ears that hindered her hearing. Today, Karen is dyslexic and has an IQ of 65. She wonders if her youth in Picher contributed to her health issues. Karen was by no means the only one to suffer. Children in Picher got sick very often and lagged behind those in the rest of the state in testing. No one linked the high lung cancer rates, respiratory infections, hypertension and high infant mortality rates to the chat piles.

In 1980, the state of Oklahoma’s tests revealed heavy metal contamination in Picher. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plugged wells and studied the local aquifer. The same year, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly known as the federal Superfund law—was introduced and signed into law. The federal Superfund program, administered by the EPA, was created to investigate and clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances. Sites managed under the program are called “Superfund” sites. In 1983, the Picher area became part of the Superfund program as part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site. In the mid-1990s, the EPA began removing six to 10 inches of topsoil from Picher residents’ yards in the hopes that it would reduce exposure to chat dust and contaminated water. Eventually, it became clear that meager measures such as these would not be enough and that the danger to public health was much more severe than previously believed.

By 2000, the population of Picher had declined to 1,640. After its early mining boom and eventual exodus, the town had difficulty attracting new industries. Also dissuading the potential influx of new industries was the excessive number of mine shafts under the town, a concern soon confirmed by increasingly threatening sinkholes. The Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study in 2006 revealing that roughly 90% of the buildings in Picher were in danger of sudden collapse. The federal government made offers to buyout residents and business owners, and even then, many were unwilling to leave home.

The death warrant for Picher was a cataclysmic EF4 tornado in 2008 that decimated much of the town, killed eight townsfolk and injured 150. After this, nearly all who had rejected the buyouts conceded that it was time to leave Picher. The EPA finally determined that, due to the possibility of collapsing mine shafts, the town was dangerous to inhabit and evacuated the town, having completed a buyout of nearly all residents. The town government cancelled Picher’s incorporated status on Sept. 1, 2009. A determined few chose to remain in the ghost town, calling themselves “Chat Rats.” In 2010, the U.S. Census counted a population of 20 within the former town limits of Picher. In 2015, the last resident and business owner in Picher, Gary Linderman, passed away, along with his dream of seeing his town come back to life.

The Tar Creek Superfund Site clean up continues very slowly. In August of this year, the site had its sixth five-year review report. The main takeaway from the report?  There is no and will be no home for anyone in Picher, Oklahoma—indefinitely. 

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