One of America's Most Toxic Places: a Town Called Picher

Only 3 residents remain
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 5, 2015 7:14 AM CST
One of America's Most Toxic Places: a Town Called Picher
Residents survey the damage from a tornado that ripped through the city of Picher, Okla., May 10, 2008.   (AP Photo/SHEILAH MILLER - Tulsa World)

The former lead and zinc mining boomtown of Picher, Okla., has seen better days. It swelled to some 14,000 residents when bullet demand rose during both World War I and II, with Wired reporting previously that "most" of the lead found in bullets used by America during those wars came from the town. Piles of chat—a white grit that results from lead extraction—rose as high as 150 feet and as wide as four football fields, reports KFSM, which says Picher "may be the biggest environmental disaster you've never heard of." Last year, NBC News noted that the town's toxicity levels were higher than those found at New York's Love Canal site. But even after the EPA declared the town a Superfund site in 1983, residents continued filling their children's sandboxes with chat. "We would ride our bikes up and down the chat piles," former resident John Clarke tells KFSM. Little wonder, then, that roughly two decades ago, 63% of children were experiencing lead poisoning, reports Wired.

In 2005, the government relocated some residents, paying them an average of $55 per square foot to get out. Picher's last straw was when a tornado destroyed much of what was left of the town in 2008. The police and town government stopped operating a year later, and NBC News reports that Picher-Cardin High School that year graduated its last class—of 11 students. And while three hardy souls have been identified as still living in its confines by KFSM, looters have raided anything of value left in the town. Meanwhile, 1,000 migrating birds were found dead in Picher earlier this year, likely wiped out from zinc poisoning. "It's a little depressing every morning when I come into work," admits Clarke of the drive into Picher; he turned the former city hall into a museum to memorialize what once was. (The biggest eco disaster of our time is being ignored.)

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