Across the border into Oklahoma is the town of Picher. Established in the early 1900s when the most productive cache of lead and zinc were discovered, it became the leading producer of lead and zinc in the Tri-State District. By the end of World War II, most of the mines were closed.
When all mining operations ceased in the 1960s, what was left behind was mountains of mine tailings, also known as chat, and ponds used to process ore, called tailings ponds. Groundwater that had previously been pumped out of the mines was allowed to fill the shafts, mixing with mine waste and contaminating the area water supplies. Mining waste in the area creeks oxidized, causing the water to turn a rusty red color.
The mountains of chat were playgrounds for the children of the area, and lead dust from the chat piles blew across the town. The residents swam in the contaminated creeks and tailing ponds and drank water from contaminated wells. By 1996, nearly 35% of the children of Picher tested positive for lead poisoning; the national average is 2.2%. The miscarriage rate was nearly 25%, compared to a national average of 10%. An Army Corps of Engineering study showed 85% of the town, including the school, which housed kindergarten through 12th grade, to be severely undermined and in danger of collapse.
|The town with the chat mountains in the background,|
before the government buy-out.
In 1983, Picher was declared a Superfund site and considered the worst environmental disaster in the United States, covering 40 square miles. (Superfund is the federal government's program to clean up uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.) It is expected to take at least 35 years to remove the mountains of chat, some of it to be used in road paving, the rest moved to a controlled hazardous waste site ten miles away.
In May of 2006, a $60 million federal buy-out plan was announced. The government paid families to relocate and bought their property. The population of Picher had declined, from a peak of over 14,000 in the mining heydays of the early 1920's to 2,500 in 1967, dropping to 1500 in 2008, and to 20 by 2011. To make matters worse, a tornado touched down in May of 2008, damaging or destroying 150 homes (about half the town), killing 7 people.
Schools are the lifeblood of small towns, and Picher fought to save theirs. Although the voters defeated a plan to annex into nearby school districts, eventually there was no choice, and the class of 2011 was the last class to graduate from Picher-Cardin School. The school enrollment, which was around 340 students at the time the buy-out was announced, had dwindled to 49; the graduating class had 11 students.
The post office closed in May of 2009; City Hall a few months later. The municipality was officially dissolved in November of 2013. Demolition work began in early 2011; today, few buildings remain.
But the mountains of chat live on, as do the rusty, red creeks.
And it is sad.
|Some of the chat mountains are 20 stories tall.|
Interested in more of the story? Following are two previews, the first from PBS Independent Lens: The Creek Runs Red; the second from filmmaker Matt Myers, Tar Creek.