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%.

Laws Passed
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.

Photographs of miners line the walls of the Pastime pool hall on Main Street in Picher. The pool hall was one of last remaining hangouts in Picher, Oklahoma.  From above, the landscape in and around Picher, Oklahoma, Picher Oklahoma, is dotted with mine shaft holes, mountains of mine waste known as chat piles and mill ponds.  The cleanup process began with the chat piles. Former miner Orval "Hoppy" Ray holds a chunk of lead removed from a mine in Picher. The piece ways approximately 15 pounds. Hoppy ran the Pastime pool hall that doubled as a historic museum up until his death in September of 2010. Terry Davis and a friend remove their belongings from their home. The two have recently taken the federal buyout and will move to a nearby town. A vandalized home lies vacant after being purchased during the buyout program. A large number of the homes that has been purchased are ransacked by vandals and then set on fire. Water laced with heavy metals flows from an underground mine to Tar Creek, the river that runs through Picher, Oklahoma, and the river that gave the area its namesake, Tar Creek Superfund Site. Kristi Andrade feeds a fake baby after it cries in the waiting room of her father Mill ponds left over from a legacy of lead and zinc mining cover the landscape in and around Picher, Oklahoma.  Lead mining require water to wash impurities from the crushed rock during the milling process. Mobile homes line a street in Picher, Oklahoma beside a large former lead mine.  These homes have since been bought and removed. Christian Kirk awaits the arrival of his school bus. He’s not sure is his school will be open next year. The number of students has gone from over 200 to 14 since the federal buyout plan began. The mobile home behind him lays vacant. Paul Ingram Thomas of Picher, Oklahoma, prepares to perform at the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami Oklahoma. Paul puts on a free concert every month at the casino. Thomas helped his father father run the family funeral home in Picher. The Miner Remnants of Picher residents lie frozen in time in the abandoned homes still left standing after the federal government Curtains still hang in the windows of abandoned homes in Picher. Only a few residents remain in the town after the federal government A vandalized home lies vacant after being purchased during the buyout program. A large number of the homes that has been purchased are ransacked by vandals and then set on fire.