Picher, Oklahoma A Photo essay by Jamie seed

Picher, Oklahoma is an American tragedy that should be a household name. It is known as the worst environmental disaster site in the United States, and one of the worst in the world. It is the centerpiece of the area known as the Tar Creek Superfund Site. It is considered uninhabitable by the EPA and as of June 2016, it has no official residents.

The remains of the Picher Mining Field Museum. One of the last remaining structures in town, it was destroyed in an arsonist's fire in 2015.

A Modern Ghost Town

Picher and its neighboring towns of Treece, Kansas and Cardin, Oklahoma were the industrial center of the Picher Field, an enormous vein of lead and zinc that produced $20 billion in ore between 1917 and 1947. Over 1,400 mine shafts were dug in this area and the ore provided for the vast majority of the US bullets fired in WWI and WWII.

Today, all three of the towns are ghost towns evacuated by the federal government because they are poisoned and toxic environments due to improper mining practices.

A Disaster of Epic Proportions

The problems that led to Picher's abandonment/evacuation are threefold: water poisoning, undermining, and air poisoning.

Dust in the Wind

The first thing anyone notices upon approaching Picher are the enormous chat piles that surround the entire town. Chat is a friendly word for "mine waste" and is one of the main reasons this place is considered to be toxic. Heavy metals such as zinc, cadmium and lead are found in the chat, which ranges in consistency from gravel to dust. The chat dust is especially problematic, as it blows in the wind and coats everything near the chat piles in a fine layer of toxic particles.

One of many enormous chat piles surrounding Picher
The chat piles loom silently in every direction.

Exclusion Zone

Although Picher is easily accessible by highway, large sections of it are fenced off and marked "No Trespassing". A possible reason for the fenced areas is to protect the public from the many sinkholes in the area. The sinkholes were caused by poor mining practices that dug too shallow to the surface. A 2006 Army Corps of Engineers study concluded that 86% of Picher's buildings, including the Picher-Cardin High School, were badly undermined and subject to collapse at any time. This factor heavily influenced the government's final decision to offer buyouts to the town's residents.

These signs are posted everywhere in Picher and the surrounding area.
View from the baseball/softball complex towards the old Christian Church

There are almost no residents remaining in Picher today. The town disincorporated in 2009 after the EPA arranged a buyout of all the homes in town and declared the place unfit for habitation. After purchasing the homes and arranging departures of residents, the EPA had the homes and structures demolished. Today very few structures remain of the mining boom town that once counted over 14,000 residents.

This beautiful old dilapidated church is still standing...barely

The Chat Piles

One of the bittersweet facts about this town is that the townspeople really loved the chat piles. No one knew they were full of poisonous lead, so the kids were allowed to play on the piles as if they were an enormous sandbox. According to the people raised in Picher, nothing was more fun than sledding down a large chat pile after a big snowstorm.

In the 90's, children from the local Native American tribe were blood tested and found to have abnormally high levels of lead in their bloodstream. Tests were done on the children of Picher, and similar results were found. It was later revealed that Picher's children had been suffering with symptoms of lead poisoning for many years that had gone undiagnosed.

In the shadows

The Christian Church in the valley of the shadow of lead
The chat

This town had heart.

The most heartbreaking part of this story is that the people who lived here loved the town. It was their home. For most of its existence, Picher knew nothing of the problems it faced. Life was normal. Kids went to school at the local high school and played football to cheering fans on Friday nights in the fall.

It was only in retrospect that the people of Picher realized the problems were literally staring them dead in the eye. The chat piles, the contaminated water...and the effects of slow lead poisoning manifesting as poor scores on tests for area elementary children.

 © Jamie Seed 2016

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