Time’s up for toxic town of Picher, Okla.
A track hoe sidled up to the modest yellow brick church, paused for a moment to position itself, then drove its teeth into the roof with brutal efficiency.
Shingles tumbled into the sanctuary. With the second blow, the wall buckled. The track hoe worked its way across the building, finally smashing the wall where a simple cross was emblazoned in red brick. Within 20 minutes, the First Baptist Church was rubble, ready to be loaded in waiting dump trucks and hauled away.
Behind the church, a water tower that serves six households bears the legend “Picher Gorillas since 1918.” It touts the mascot of a high school that won a state football championship in 1984, a year after the town was declared a toxic waste site. The school no longer exists.
Picher is a town that had held on through misfortune after misfortune. Now its death is near.
The track hoes and dump trucks roam the streets of the once-bustling mining town like an occupying army. Giant dun-colored piles of mining waste, or “chat piles,” loom like a craggy miniature mountain range over burned-out, stripped and boarded-up houses and empty lots.
At Ole Miners Pharmacy, the only business left, former residents like John Harvey stop by to pick up medication and visit with old neighbors. Often they don’t talk about the disappearing town — it’s too painful, too sad and has been going on for too long. Harvey, 58, grew up in Picher from the age of 10 and, like generations of children here, played on the chat piles, sliding down their sandy slopes, and swam in the abandoned mine shafts.
Harvey has recorded a melancholy song — a slow, old-style country ballad — about his dying hometown:
We never thought that one day our town would be no more/
Never thought that we’d ever have to leave/
Didn’t know of the dangers that the mines had left behind.
At its peak in 1926 — eight years after it was founded — Picher, with 14,252 residents, sat at the center of the Tri-State Mining District, a rural area of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri that was the lead and zinc capital of the world. Once inhabited by Quapaw Indians, the area was largely agricultural, with fields of hay and cattle grazing on the prairie, before the miners began tearing into the earth in the early 1900s.
This corner of the state is best known as the home turf of baseball great Mickey Mantle, whose family moved to Commerce, a few miles south of Picher, when he was 4. His father worked in the mines. Mantle was married in a house in Picher and efforts are underway to save the house from destruction.
By the time Harvey’s family moved to town in the mid-1960s, the mining industry was all but dead, and the onetime miners who remained had found work in nearby towns, many of them at the BF Goodrich plant in Miami until that closed in 1986.
Picher was poor and hard-edged, but also close-knit. Bars and churches were plentiful, even for a town that was down to just 1,640 residents in 2000, and neighbors did what they could to help each other out.
At 14, Harvey was hanging around the volunteer fire department’s station, washing firetrucks, sweeping floors and fighting fires when he got the chance. Later, he played guitar in a band called the Chat Rats at the local pool hall.
In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Picher to be at the center of a 40-square-mile Superfund site, one of the most toxic places in America, initially because of the mine waste contaminating the water. The problem came to light after a man with an Arabian horse ranch in nearby Commerce noticed that rust-colored water was seeping out of the ground and staining his horses’ legs.
In the mid-1990s, studies showed that about a third of children in the area had elevated lead levels in their blood, which can cause cognitive and learning issues. John Sparkman, a Picher native who sat on the school board for 18 years, saw generations of kids who struggled to learn and often dropped out of school.
“We worked our butts off — we implemented every kind of program to help these kids. We had talks with the teachers — we attacked the problem, but we just couldn’t overcome it,” he said.
The EPA hauled away contaminated soil and eventually declared its remediation efforts successful in reducing lead levels in blood. No major health problems linked to the contamination have been documented. But lead was not the only issue.
In 2006, a study commissioned by Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma showed 286 sites in the area where the ground was at risk of collapse because of the vast underground network of caves left by the mining. There had been multiple cave-ins over the years, causing property damage and at least one death, of a motorist who drove into a gaping hole.
Inhofe and other officials announced a federally funded voluntary buyout of all residents who wished to leave Picher, the neighboring town of Cardin and the unincorporated area of Hockerville. A state-funded buyout had already moved about 50 families with children age 6 and under, who are at the greatest risk from lead contamination.
The most recent buyout was completed last year for about $46 million. The payouts, which were based on appraised value, averaged $65,624 for a single-family home.
The dismantling of Picher is not unprecedented — a state park in Missouri stands where the dioxin-contaminated town of Times Beach used to be. But relocation is an extreme solution to protect human health, said EPA Region 6 Superfund Director Sam Coleman.
“Relocations are not typically our remedy of first choice,” he said.
The town’s difficulties didn’t end there. In 2008, a tornado hit, killing seven residents. A year later the city and school district dissolved.
Eventually, 96% of those who applied for buyouts left — some only after the tornado had swept away their homes. Harvey moved in 2009 to Miami — pronounced “Mi-A-muh” — a nearby town of nearly 13,000 that he finds uncomfortably large and impersonal.
Cardin, with a population of 150 in 2000, is now empty. In Picher, six households have stayed as well as a handful more on the outskirts of town.
“I’d like to have stayed myself,” Harvey said. “I lived here as a little kid, and I’m not saying where lead ain’t bad for you, which I’m sure it is. But myself, I don’t think they should have condemned it. They should have left us alone. Should’ve just left us alone.”
Some buildings were razed years ago. The latest round of demolitions began last month, with 247 structures slated to be torn down in 141 days.
Among the few opting to remain is Gary “Lights Out” Linderman, the eccentric and perpetually cheerful owner of Ole Miners Pharmacy. Linderman, who declined a buyout offer of $95,000, insists it’s not yet time for him to go. He still sees a steady stream of traffic from former Picher residents who have moved away.
“I’m not hard-headed or stubborn, but I have a mind of my own,” Linderman said, standing beneath a shelf full of bear figurines his customers have given him because of his predilection for bear hunting. “I’m here for my people. It’s not time for me to make a move.”
Inside the store, it’s possible to forget that the town outside is nearly gone. Customers make small talk about hunting or the year’s record snowfall. A bulletin board is full of notices — a house for sale in Commerce, an ad offering to haul junk away. No one mentions the destruction outside.
Ramona Cole, 43, who left for Miami after the tornado, comes back to pick up medication for her and her mother.
“I go up on the hill where we used to live and see how devastating it is, and then I come here and it’s like Picher’s still alive,” she said.
Everett “Sonny” Green has a 740-acre farm in Hockerville, where he raised chickens for 24 years. When the trust in charge of the cleanup came around with its buyout offer, he was trying to round up funds to upgrade his chicken houses. Because of his farm’s location in the Superfund site, the bank wouldn’t let him use the house for collateral on a loan. And because his chicken operation was inactive, the trust was willing to buy only the house and 5 acres for $160,000.
Not wanting to go into debt to move, Green turned the offer down. He and his wife remain with a house they can’t sell, a small herd of cattle and a row of empty chicken coops.
“I’m 72 years old, and I don’t need this,” he said.
John Garner had no interest in the buyout. He and his wife and two teenagers live in what used to be the heart of Picher, with a gorilla statue in their front yard. With all the neighbors gone, deer wander through the back yard, and Garner amuses himself by making YouTube videos in which he blows up mailboxes with a little cannon or uses a pickup to pull a sled ridden by a friend, who is stark naked, down an empty street.
When asked why he stayed, Garner says, “Why not?” The buyout money couldn’t purchase a comparable house elsewhere, and he’s dismissive of the risks.
“I’ve eaten more of this gravel than some people have ever seen, and I’m as smart as I want to be,” Garner said. His 18-year-old son is set to graduate with honors from Quapaw High School and will be the first in the family to go to college.
The empty and slowly deteriorating houses flanking Garner’s are still standing, but not for long.
When all the houses are hauled away, the land will likely be turned over to the Quapaw tribe that owned it before the mines came in. Tribal Chairman John Berrey said the Quapaw hope to transform the site into wetlands once the last residents are finally gone.
Then the only record left will be photographs and memories, and the words of Harvey’s song:
The town of Picher, Oklahoma/
where I lived for many a year/
Bring back memories of my childhood long ago/
when climbing on the chat pile was a thrill to every kid.