Oklahoma Town Is A Toxic Waste Site

Saturday, March 3rd 2007, 7:00 am
By: News On 6

PICHER, Okla. (AP) _ Undercut with mine shafts and buried under bleak, gray mountains of lead waste, this Oklahoma town is in the middle of one of the nation's worst environmental nightmares.

Cave-ins and sinkholes have swallowed up homes and children. The creek runs a ghastly orange with acidic mine water. And the air and soil are polluted with lead dust.

Thousands have moved out because of the dangers. In a couple of years, only a few residents could be left in a city that peaked at about 20,000 around World War II. Already, Picher is getting down to a hard core of holdouts.

Just this month, voters rejected, 142-132, a plan to merge the school system _ which has cut athletics, band and art and is down to just 145 students, into two neighboring districts.

``There's nothing here in this town that can't be fixed. Ninety-nine percent of the people who write about the mines don't know squat about mining. They never wore a hard hat,'' said 81-year-old Orval ``Hoppy'' Ray.

Ray worked in the mines here in the 1940s, when the town had five movie theaters, a bowling alley and nearly two dozen saloons. Today, he runs a drafty pool hall and mining museum on the main drag. It is one of the few businesses still open in this dying town of about 1,000 people.

Picher is the center of the Tar Creek Superfund site, a 40-square-mile area that also takes in portions of Missouri and Kansas and was one of the world's most productive regions for lead and zinc. It provided raw material for bullets in both world wars.

For decades, miners, including Mickey Mantle's father, hollowed out miles of tunnels underneath this town and neighboring communities of Cardin, Quapaw, Commerce and North Miami. The mines closed around 1970.

Tar Creek has since become one of the oldest and largest Superfund cleanup sites in the country.

Dust from mountains of lead-contaminated chat, or mine waste, blows through town. The chat piles, some 100 feet high, look like gray sand dunes. Before the dangers of lead were understood, locals used to hold parties on the piles, and kids used them as sledding hills.

High lead levels have been found in the blood of local children. Lead can lead to low IQs and behavioral problems. But no studies have been done on the effects of the lead on the youngsters around here.

Last year, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study found more than 100 homes in Picher were in danger of collapsing into old mines. A mine collapse in 1967 took in nine homes, said John Sparkman, a Picher native and executive director of the town's housing authority.

Sinkholes are so common that Picher's city park, one of the last green, open spaces here, was fenced off to the public for fear the ground would cave in, and the main highway leading into town has been closed to heavy trucks.

``We've had people drive dirt bikes into them. People have been injured sledding down chat piles. Kids have fallen into mine shafts,'' Sparkman said. ``Luckily no one's been killed yet. They are just like warning shots being fired and telling us, `Let's wake up and smell the coffee.'''

In the past few years, parents worried about their children's health have flooded the school district with transfer applications. A nearly $20 million federal buyout program is speeding up the exodus. Since last fall, buyout applications for nearly 700 properties have been submitted.

Still, there are holdouts who say Picher can be something again.

``This is my hometown; this is where I grew up,'' said 18-year-old Mike Sweeten, a 2006 graduate of the high school who voted no on the school annexation. ``I want to stay here until the town closes.''

At G + J's Gorillas Cage, a Main Street diner named for the school's mascot, owner Joyce Cox plans to keep serving up the house specialties, Chubby Cheeseburgers, even if there is only a trickle of customers.

``I'm too dumb to quit, I guess,'' said Cox, who was born here and gave her age as ``too old.''

Gary Linderman, 52, runs the Ole Miners Pharmacy, the kind of place that makes deliveries and still takes IOUs. He has about 80 customers a day, many of whom moved to neighboring towns but continue to come here out of loyalty. Some folks have nicknamed him ``Lights Out Gary'' because they say his place will be the last to go.

Hoppy's pool hall gets a couple of dozen folks every Monday for music night, where anyone who wants to attempt a country tune can have a turn at the microphone. He doesn't keep regular hours and opens up the place only when someone wants to play.

So, what will it take to get him to leave Picher?

``Somebody meaner than me, I guess,'' he joked. ``Ain't nobody going to stand up in my face and tell me where to go.''

Sparkman said the buildings in town will probably be razed when everybody leaves, but the exact future of the town has yet to be determined. The mountains of mining waste are slowly being reduced, with some of the material destined for road construction, but it will be a decades-long project, the housing chief said.

The EPA has gone to court to try to recover some of the cleanup from some of the mining companies that worked in the area.

Sparkman said that by the summer, most of the remaining residents will be gone because of the federal buyouts. And Picher will become a place with tall weeds, no police or fire protection, and homes that are worth nothing.

The holdouts ``don't realize what a bought-out town will look like,'' he said.