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Town's Past Forever Undermines Its Future

The EPA couldn't save the now-sinking former mining capital. It will be bought and abandoned.

July 23, 2006|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

PICHER, Okla. — When he was a boy growing up in this sad old mining town, John Sparkman sometimes felt the ground shudder beneath his feet.

He knew the rumbling meant that roughneck scavengers, known as "gougers," were blowing up support beams to grab what little ore was left.

In this onetime lead and zinc capital of the world -- a town sitting on a maze of crudely carved mining caverns that stretches for miles into Missouri and Kansas -- signs of the instability below are everywhere.

Sinkholes with nicknames such as "Hell's Half-Acre" routinely suck the surface dirt hundreds of feet down. More than 1,000 decrepit mine shafts, abandoned after the ore dried up decades ago, pock the landscape like open sores.

A cave-in swallowed nine houses in 1967; miraculously, no one was killed. Just last December, another appeared alongside U.S. Highway 69, forcing Ottawa County officials to bar big rigs from the main road through town.

Anyone with a smidgen of common sense, said Sparkman, the head of the Picher Housing Authority, should have suspected long ago that the town was in danger of collapsing.

The Environmental Protection Agency apparently did not.

The federal agency has spent more than $150 million over the last 20 years cleaning up mining pollution around Picher's homes and businesses, only to discover this year that the town's problems run deeper.

"Look at this," Sparkman, 45, said recently as he pulled his Ford pickup next to a hole perhaps hundreds of feet deep and extending over 5 acres -- a crumbled mine shaft that has become an illegal dump full of dingy sofas and broken refrigerators.

"Now tell me," Sparkman said, "how in the world did it make any sense for the government to spend $150 million trying to fix this place up?"

Confirming residents' long-held suspicions, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers summoned Picher's townspeople to a meeting in January and told them that more than one-third of the place could sink into the ground -- 286 spots in all, including the earth beneath a school playground and a new park.

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry has approved a plan to buy out everyone left in Picher, which has withered from its boomtown peak of 16,000 to about 1,600. State and federal taxpayers -- and not the companies that hollowed out as much as 85% of the ground under the town -- will foot the $20-million bill to buy the 455 houses, 191 mobile homes, 20 churches, 19 businesses and four ranches still standing.

Picher, a town full of weed-covered lots and brick foundations of buildings torn down long ago, once was the bustling hub of a 40-square-mile mining district.

Here, generations of hardy men -- including the father of baseball hero Mickey Mantle -- unearthed the raw materials for bullets that U.S. soldiers fired during World Wars I and II.

The town's seemingly inevitable collapse will be its final indignity, weary residents say. But it will hardly rank as its worst.

They contend that the spectacular mess the mining companies left when they pulled out three decades ago is topped only by the government's bungled attempts to clean it up.

And they are embittered by the realization that Picher's painful end could have been avoided had the government bought everyone out to begin with.

"It's one thing not to go to your high school reunion. It's another not to have a high school to go back to," said Kim Pace, who became principal of her old elementary school and will preside over its demise.

"This is heartbreaking," she said. "It's like watching someone die of a terminal illness for 20 years."

Picher is part of the EPA's Tar Creek Superfund Site, a place federal officials two decades ago found to be more toxic than Love Canal. Located in upstate New York, Love Canal was evacuated beginning in 1978, decontaminated and taken off the Superfund list in 2004.

But here in Picher, the creek that gives the Superfund site its name runs blood-red every time it rains because of the acid-tainted water that seeps out of the old mine shafts.

Mounds of mine tailings, some 20 stories tall, still sit near homes and schoolyards, releasing lead-laden dust when breezes blow.

And an unusually high number of children, ridiculed as "lead heads" by boys and girls from neighboring schools, struggle with learning to read and write.

A study in 2000 found that 12% of the children tested in Picher had hazardous levels of lead in their blood. That was hailed as good news; in 1997, the number had been twice as high.

Follow-up tests showed more improvement. But serious doubts arose about the data after University of Oklahoma officials confirmed in May that field workers had passed off their own blood as blood from the children. Some workers told investigators that they could not bear pricking children to obtain samples.

EPA officials defend their record at Tar Creek, arguing that the environmental disaster is slowly coming under control.

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