Picher, Oklahoma : The Death of a Town
What’s done is done. Even 25 years and $120 million of clean-up efforts can’t remove the scars of the world’s largest lead mine in this small Oklahoman town. Vacant houses and empty schools remind the few who have chosen to stay that extracting the natural resources of the earth without inhibition can lead to the demise of a community.
Picher sits on the northeast corner of Oklahoma and on top of miles of underground mazes carved by miners in search of lead and zinc. During Picher’s pinnacle year, 1924, miners extracted a total of 3 million tons of lead from the ground below.
The largest population was recorded during the 1930 census at 21,800. In 2000 it was recorded at 1,640. The harmless drilling of water wells in the area led to the discovery of lead drifts. The rest is history.
Picher’s legacy is tainted with stories of Native Americans of the Quapaw and Miami tribes being persuaded into leasing their land to mining companies in return for royalties. They received only 12.5% of the value of the lead and zinc removed from below. The story got more complicated when the Bureau of Indian Affairs stepped in. According to a local Quapaw, the tribe was considered “incompetent” and therefore forfeited their rights to manage the land. The BIA leased the land for the natives.
With every ounce of lead extracted from the land came pounds of cost. Every pound of lead produces 10 pounds of unusable dirt. That’s roughly 30 million tons of dirt, just in 1929, and the number one reason the Environmental Protection Agency declared Picher a Superfund Site in 1983. Lead levels in the children of Picher before 1996, according to the EPA, were high. Put simply, the standard “healthy” lead level for children under five throughout the country is 10ug/dl (a percentage of lead to 1ml blood sample). Before 1996, 31% of children between the ages of one and five had blood lead levels exceeding 10ug/dl in Picher. The average number of children who exceed EPA blood lead levels in the US is 2.2%.
Early in 2006 the Oklahoma government passed a law authored by state senator Larry Roberts defining a buyout program that would pay for the homes of citizens in the town of Picher who had children under the age of six. Now the program has extended to all residents of the town. The community is slowly fading away as people sell to the government, house by house.