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Picher Superfund Site Receives Thousands in Stimulus

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The town of Picher is almost completely deserted after a government buyout program and a deadly tornado. The town of Picher is almost completely deserted after a government buyout program and a deadly tornado.
The Director of the Picher Housing Authority said he won't  waste stimulus money by spending it in Picher. The Director of the Picher Housing Authority said he won't waste stimulus money by spending it in Picher.
One option is to spend the stimulus money in the nearby town of Fairland. One option is to spend the stimulus money in the nearby town of Fairland.
The housing authority director said the only way the stimulus money would stay in Picher is to pay to demolish the housing units. The housing authority director said the only way the stimulus money would stay in Picher is to pay to demolish the housing units.

By Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact Team

PICHER, Oklahoma -- Almost no one lives in Picher, Oklahoma, anymore. The federal government bought out most of the residents as the entire community is contaminated from former mining operations there, but Picher is still getting stimulus money.

Driving into Picher, Christmas decorations adorn the street corner where an old building barely stands, caved in, burned and vandalized. On that same street, a truck pulls out, pulling an entire home behind it. It is one of the many homes bought by the federal government, then sold to the highest bidder. All of those homes have to be moved out of the buyout area.

"This will be the last Christmas in Picher. I mean it's all over with," said John Sparkman, Director of the Picher Housing Authority.

The desolate view from atop a chat pile shows the wasteland of boarded up homes and empty lots. The homes that were not bought out by the federal government were swiped by last year's deadly tornado.

D.L. Lofton is a former Picher resident. He paid $1,800 to strip one home of its usable materials and said he'll build a new home somewhere else.

"The only thing I'm not going to take's the shingles and the brick. Everything else is going," Lofton said. "Yeah, I got a good deal on it."

But the Picher Housing Authority has recently come under fire for accepting $135,000 as part of the stimulus.

Oklahoma Impact Reporter Jennifer Loren asked the Director of the housing authority, "Did the Picher Housing Authority apply for this $135,000?"

"No. It's given to us automatically in the system," Sparkman said.

Sparkman accepted $135,000 in stimulus that would have gone toward Picher's 78 now-empty housing units. That money has since been set aside.

"We will not use those funds on the existing Picher units," Sparkman said.

Sparkman said he has other plans for the stimulus money. In fact, he said, over the past few years the Picher Housing Authority has collected and saved almost $2 million in this kind of funding.

"We've been holding all of our capitol fund monies for the past several years in anticipation of relocating to another town and that town will be Fairland, Oklahoma," Sparkman said.

The tiny town of Fairland is about 20 miles south of Picher. Sparkman is working with townspeople to move Picher's Housing Authority there and build 78 new housing units.

"Fairland is a nice community," said Eddie Stoner, President of The First Bank of Fairland.

Stoner said there is a need for the housing units and that most people in town welcome the idea and the stimulus dollars.

"To have a housing addition like that and have the government to help fund it and pay for it, I can't see that it could be a problem in our community," Stoner said.

According to Sparkman, at this point, there's only one way that $135,000 in stimulus could stay in Picher. He said there's a chance the money could pay to demolish the housing authorities' remaining units if they don't sell. In that case the scraps would be tossed into a massive sinkhole.

Sparkman has until March 2010 to come up with a proposal to spend the $135,000 in stimulus and have it approved by HUD.

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