Picher, Oklahoma

Friday, 10th July 2009 by

Picher, Oklahoma is a small town in north-eastern Oklahoma near the Kansas-Missouri border. It was once a major hub for heavy metals extraction, boasting some of the most productive lead mines in the world. By the early 1970s however, all mining operations ceased leaving 480 kilometres of underground tunnels, more than 180 million tonnes of toxic waste, and a town without much of a future.


Located in close proximity to the Tar Creek Superfund Site, the citizens of Picher have been left to deal with toxic mine tailings left over from underground drilling operations. These tailing piles, known locally as “Chat“, litter the landscape, some towering one hundred metres or more above the town.

chat1 chat2

Aside from detracting from Picher’s overall scenic beauty, these chat piles contain extremely fine lead dust and pose a tremendous health risk to its citizens. Children are especially susceptible to the toxic dust because elevated levels of lead in their blood can lead to learning disabilities. Lead and zinc have even contaminated Picher’s drinking water as well as many swimming holes frequented by local youngsters.


To make matters worse, the kilometres of abandoned mining tunnels below the town have been collapsing since the 1950s and continue to do so even today. Due to this geological instability, much of the town has been deemed unsafe for habitation leaving many former commercial and residential blocks in disrepair.


In 1983, Picher and its surrounding mines were declared one of the most polluted places in the United States and became a top clean-up priority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the decades since, the EPA and the U.S. Government have made repeated attempts to relocate the residents of Picher. Though a small group of stalwart individuals have resisted relocation, the town is set to close on or around September 1 of this year. On June 13, a final farewell was held, allowing long-time residents to reflect on better times.

For more information about Picher’s history and final days take a look at this CNN article. Also worth checking out, “The Creek Runs Red” is a compelling documentary about the Tar Creek Superfund Site.

Thanks to Brian in Texas.