Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Picher, Oklahoma

In 1873, in the southwest corner of Missouri, the town of Joplin was established as a mining town and quickly became the hub of the Tri-State Mining District, which also included southeastern Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma. Lead and zinc were first surface mined and eventually deep mines were dug underground, with approximately 75% of what is now the city undermined. 

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.


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18 comments:

  1. (possible) frist
    good post, in a horrible, tempt-you-to-get-drawn-into-the-darkside-of-everyday-life… this is the value (for me) of this virtual place. I could have watched the PBS clip (but I did not), but if I were in a conversation with someone about great eco-disasters (but I am likely not to), I could say, "Yeah, there's this place in Kansas or Missouri or some-god-forsaken-where, that a friend of mine told me about" (and someone would say) "who do you know there, you've never been to the Midwest", (and I'd say), "no! yeah, a vfriend of mine, Dyanne…lives out there and ever thing! …and she's a total scott")

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    1. FRIST!

      It's such a sad story, and the place fascinates me. The first time I saw it was after the government buy-out had already been in pretty full swing, so I never got to see it when it was "normal".

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  2. Holy canoli! I had no idea. Is 10 miles even enough safe distance? Now I'm.curious about other places previously mined. So scary. Interesting post idea.

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    1. Thanks, Joy! You can go to the EPA's website http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/ and look up superfund sites near you. That'll give you some sleepless nights!

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  3. It is better if people move out of the hazardous area and try to make a living in a better and healthy place..

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    1. Without a doubt, the people should have been moved from the area, but it was hard for some of them, especially the ones who had lived there for 70 or 80 years. And it should never have happened in the first place, which time and space constraints didn't really allow me to get into. The mining companies just dissolved and left the mess. And it's also Indian land. A huge, horrible mess.

      Thanks for stopping by! I usually don't write such dour posts!

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  4. this is a terrible tragedy, and I am glad I read it. Thank you for such a great job writing about it.
    Nothing is simple, is it? jean

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    1. Thank, Jean! It IS a terrible tragedy. The landscape is post-apocalyptic.

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  5. sad to see that place got so much destroyed :( I wish people act and save themselves from the environmental disasters ....
    I echo Jean . Good decision to write on this !

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    1. Thank you, Afshan! So much greed and corruption was involved in this. The native American tribe that owned the land was left with this mess. And the impact on the land will probably last to the end of time, since the ground water is involved. Part of me wants to write a Part 2 about that.

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  6. I love the history in this post, but it is so sad that Picher has become a ghost town. I cannot imagine what that would mean for all those families that have a long history in the town.

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    1. If you look it up on Wikipedia, the little sidebar actually classifies it as a ghost town. Isn't that sad?

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  7. I would love to hear a Part 2. Indian land is a mysterious historical fact-much like the California Water Wars, that are still going on. The pictures of the decaying buildings were beautiful. Thanks for sharing Picher's legacy.

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    1. Thanks, Rebecca! The documentaries are really good, especially the one called Tar Creek. I couldn't find it anywhere to do an actual link beyond the trailer, but if you can find it somewhere, watch it.

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  8. Wow that is terrible :( It's a shame how the town deteriorated. I'm curious why people would want to continue living there with everything going on, though. That PBS documentary looks good, and perhaps it would answer that question.

    I really like that church picture. Looks haunted as hell. The whole place does...

    Jak at The Cryton Chronicles & Dreams in the Shade of Ink

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    1. People who had lived there their entire lives just didn't want to move, didn't want their way of life to change. Plus the buy out money often wasn't enough to buy something somewhere else.

      I found a website by a group from Oklahoma City who did ghost hunts. They swore all of Pitcher was haunted.

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  9. All the chat piles in WC are gone. Makes me sad every time I go home. And now they're filling in Sucker Flats. Those are the images of my childhood going away. But your post proves it's better than the alternative.

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    1. See, it's what you're used to. It looked like "home" to you, which is probably the same thing the people in Picher thought. Scary how dangerous it was, and how close it was to their homes, schools and parks. The track team actually trained on the chat!

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