Roughly 100 years ago, Picher, Oklahoma was a booming mining town. Residents took great pride in the town’s multiple thriving zinc and lead extraction sites. Picher’s seemingly endless supply of lead was used to fashion ammunition for soldiers fighting in World War I and World War II. As lead extraction expanded, so did poisonous piles of tailings which the locals lovingly referred to as chat.
In the early 20th century, hills of toxic chat were simply part of Picher’s landscape. Residents didn’t think twice as they climbed the piles of chat, sunbathed atop them, and let their children play in them as if they were ordinary sand. It wasn’t until Picher’s water turned a rusty red from lead and zinc contamination in the 1970s that Picher residents truly began to worry that something was amiss.
In 1983, the town of Picher was considered an EPA Superfund site. It was clear that contaminated water, unsteady ground prone to frequent sinkholes, and an abundance of health issues caused by lead poisoning made the town uninhabitable. The government slowly began to relocate residents, until a powerful tornado in 2008 resulted in massive property damage that prompted almost every remaining Picher occupant to leave.
Today, Picher features the skeletal remains of riverbeds stained red by decades of poisonous mining runoff, concrete staircases that go nowhere, and the crumbling remnants of former businesses and homes. Federal officials continue their efforts to decontaminate the area. Former Picher residents occasionally return to walk the town’s dusty streets. There are some who remember that Picher was once a thriving town. Despite all of the present difficulty, Picher will always be their hometown.
Picher will remain uninhabitable for many years to come due to contamination. The town of Picher is a cautionary tale about the lasting impacts of environmental degradation.