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Time's up for toxic town of Picher, Okla.

The EPA is tearing down what's left of Picher, Okla., a town that has paid a heavy price in toxic pollution and cave-ins since its heyday as a lead mining center.

February 15, 2011|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • An excavator demolishing the First Baptist Church of Picher, Okla. The entire town is being demolished, except for a few buildings deemed historically significant, because of lead contamination and the threat of underground mine collapse.
An excavator demolishing the First Baptist Church of Picher, Okla. The… (Nathan Papes / For The Times )

Reporting from 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.

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