In 1980, as a special educator coming into the district, I could not figure out what was the matter. Nothing seemed to stick. Never having a clue that it could be based on those chat piles, because the chat piles have always been our friends.
Former Picher-Cardin Elementary Principal, Kim Pace, quoted by NPR, 2/11/07
I’ve been researching and reading about Picher. Found a short article from 2007 by NPR that had a few interesting details:
When John F. Kennedy campaigned here in 1960, it was against the backdrop of economic desperation
In 1983 EPA ranked Picher the country’s most hazardous Superfund site, worse than Love Canal
And this summary:
It turns out the chat piles were laced with lead, and blood tests showed alarmingly high levels of lead in about one-quarter of the kids here. Three-quarters of the elementary students were reading below grade level. The EPA launched a massive remediation effort in 1996, spending more than $150 million
We believe very strongly, based on the evidence we have, that dust is not the source of lead contamination in Picher.
Robert Joyce, a lawyer defending Gold Fields Mining Corporation and Blue Tee Corporation, quoted in the NYT, 4/12/04
(Source: The New York Times)
Picher made the list of “America’s 10 worst man-made environmental disasters”
Picher, Okla., is a modern ghost town, and the EPA calls it the most toxic place in America. At one time, Picher was one of the most productive lead and zinc mining areas in the world, but today, the once-bustling town is full of abandoned homes, empty storefronts and enormous piles of lead-laced mine waste.
In 1967 mining ceased — contaminated water from the mines had turned the local creek red, and sinkholes were opening up in the mountains of mining waste. Picher’s giant chat piles — often used for climbing, sledding and picnicking — were found to be laced with lead. High levels of lead were found in blood and tissue of residents, cancer levels skyrocketed, and three quarters of the Picher’s elementary students were reading below grade level.
The area was declared the Tar Creek Superfund site in 1981, but most of the residents didn’t leave until 2006 when studies found that most of the town was in imminent danger of collapsing into the mines. The town — home to 14,000 abandoned mine shafts, 70 million tons of mine tailings and 36 million tons of mill sand and sludge — was deemed too toxic to clean up, and a federal buyout program paid people to leave. The city’s post office closed in July 2009, and the city ceased operations as a municipality on Sept. 1, 2009.
Photo by Finlay Mackay for WIRED
WIRED had a great article last August that got me thinking about Picher/Tar Creek. The images/video they captured were visceral and spurred me to make my own journey to Picher, and begin to research the history of the town.
“Picher sprang up as a 20th-century boomtown—the “buckle” of the mining belt that ran through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. The earth underneath it produced most of the lead for US bullets in World Wars I and II and enough zinc to literally galvanize construction of the American suburbs. These raw materials were used to create stronger, water-resistant metal alloys, better batteries, and dietary supplements—the base materials of a modern society. Population peaked at 14,000 in 1926. When the lode ran dry in 1970, the mining companies moved out. Picher eventually became a Superfund site, and half a decade ago the state government offered residents an average of $55 per square foot to evacuate their homes. By September 2009, the police force had disbanded and the government dissolved. Picher was a dead city.”
And here’s the short WIRED video from the article:
When I drove through Picher in May, most of the building had already been torn down. Here are some excerpts/quotes from a January 2011 article about the demolition:
“It’s not time for me to leave yet,” said Gary Linderman, owner of Old Miner’s Pharmacy in what is left of central Picher, located in the northeast corner of the state. “I have an obligation to people. We are all creatures of habit and closing might throw them off.”
Because of historic significance, a church, mining museum, auction house and a building where mining equipment was sold will remain standing, though they are abandoned.
Linderman’s building will be surrounded by vacant lots in what used to be downtown, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“I’m a farm boy,” he said. “I’m used to the wide open spaces.”
Another great excerpt from the April 2004 New York Times article titled “Despite Cleanup at Mine, Dust and Fear Linger”
The mountains of mine waste were part of the landscape when most of the current residents were born. ‘‘The chat piles were our friends,” said Kimberly Pace, 45. The miners’ descendants sledded on them as children, partied on them as teenagers, and, as adults, found ersatz sand for their children’s sandboxes and the foundations of their homes.
The chat, most people believed, had some economic value as fill material. That it might be hazardous was not widely recognized until 1994, when blood lead information collected from local Quapaw Indian children showed 35 percent with levels above the federal threshold for excessive exposure, which is 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, down from 25 in the 1980’s.
In 1997, tests of children in the nearby town of Miami and the five old mining towns within the Superfund site — Picher, Cardin, Quapaw, Commerce and North Miami — found lead in paint on the homes, lead in soil in the yards, lead in dust on the floors and, in Picher and Cardin, hazardous lead levels in the blood of one child in four.
The New York Times wrote in April 2004:
…the massive Tar Creek mining site, whose lead ore became bullets fired in two world wars, offers a cautionary tale. Like a patient riddled with overlapping infections, Tar Creek has exhibited almost every symptom of a modern wasteland. Acidic, rust-red waterways threaten to pollute subterranean aquifers and pose a risk to wells and downstream lakes. Houses have been swallowed by subsidence above abandoned mine shafts; sports fields in Picher sit atop a massive underground cavern.
The site is a stark reminder of the limits of the federal government’s ability to clean up the messes of the industrial age. And it raises questions about whether some Superfund sites have such intractable problems that no amount of money, time and effort will make them safe.
An excerpt from TIME’s article from April 2004:
In the past decade, studies have shown that up to 38% of local children have had high levels of lead in their blood — an exposure that can cause permanent neurological damage and learning disabilities. “Our kids hit a brick wall,” says Kim Pace, principal of the Picher-Cardin Elementary School. “Their eyes skip and jump. It takes them 100 repetitions to learn a sound.”
At her kitchen table, Evona Moss helps her son Michael, 10, with his homework. Michael grew up across the street from a chat pile, and at one point the third-grader’s lead levels measured 40% above the Centers for Disease Control’s danger level. He repeated kindergarten. “I used to think he was lazy,” says his mother, “but he tries so hard. One minute he knows the words, and a half-hour later he doesn’t. Every night he kneels down and prays to be a better reader.”
Here’s an 11-year-old New York Times article on Picher. Remember, at this point 1,800 people were living in the town, and there was no consensus on what was to be done, and if the “chat” piles were actually deadly:
The mounds of chat, ground rock laced with lead and iron, have marked the skyline of Picher since miners began pulling minerals from dozens of mine shafts here in 1891. When the mines played out or were forced by cheaper foreign imports to close — the last one shut down in 1958 — 175 million tons of chat was left behind, creating a toxic moonscape encircling the town that federal officials have been trying to clean up since 1983.
”We have nearly a hundred chat piles near here, some of them 100 acres wide at the base and stretching 200 feet high,” said Philip Allen, the project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Tar Creek Superfund Site remediation efforts here. ”It’s an enormous problem.
In January, Gov. Frank Keating appointed Mr. Griffin to head a task force to deal with issues raised by the abandoned mines, including the health effects of mine tailings, water quality, mine shaft plugging and potential uses for chat.
”It makes a great road-building material when mixed with asphalt,” Mr. Griffin said. He estimates there is enough chat near Picher to build a four-lane highway two times around the globe and that all of that chat would be worth about $500 million if it could be sold.