Frank Morris, NPR
Ed Keheley looks over a collapsed mine shaft near the town of Picher, Okla.
Ed Keheley looks over a collapsed mine shaft near the town of Picher, Okla. Frank Morris, NPR
Frank Morris, NPR
Lifelong Picher resident, and former miner, Orval "Hoppy" Ray stands outside his pool hall, one of the last businesses still open in Picher, Okla.
Frank Morris, NPR
An abandoned baseball park sits near a chat pile.
An abandoned baseball park sits near a chat pile. Frank Morris, NPR
Picher, Okla., a mining town in the northeast corner of the state, has managed to survive labor unrest, economic collapse and horrible pollution. But within a year or two, a federal buyout will likely finish the town. Some call it a mercy killing. But Picher residents see it as more of an execution.
Grey, barren heaps of mining waste hem the town into a grim, man-made valley. Rusty mining towers and ancient-looking concrete columns evoke an era gone by. Rotted, old buildings neighbor empty lots. Much of the vitality here is preserved in the memories of people like 81-year old Orval "Hoppy" Ray, who runs the Pastime pool hall and mining museum, one of the last open businesses in this town.
Ray reminisces about the days when 25,000 people crammed into this town. Picher's ore was some of the poorest on earth, but miners blasted and hand-shoveled enough of it out to lead the nation in lead and zinc production.
But as they nearly always do, the mines played out. When John F. Kennedy campaigned here in 1960, it was against the backdrop of economic desperation.
In 1983 EPA ranked Picher the country's most hazardous Superfund site, worse than Love Canal.
Picher still had its chat piles, fun for climbing, sledding, picnics and keg parties. And the town rallied, as it had for decades, around its churches, and schools.
But even at the elementary school, lifelong resident and now school principal, Kimberly Pace began to notice another problem.
"In 1980, as a special educator coming into the district, I could not figure out what was the matter. Nothing seemed to stick." Pace says. "Never having a clue that it could be based on those chat piles, because the chat piles have always been our friends."
It turns out the chat piles were laced with lead, and blood tests showed alarmingly high levels of lead in about one-quarter of the kids here. Three-quarters of the elementary students were reading below grade level. The EPA launched a massive remediation effort in 1996, spending more than $150 million. Nearly two years ago, Oklahoma offered families with children younger than 6 a chance to sell and get out. Standing in the vacant lot where her house use to be, Vicky Phillips says her family reluctantly took the buyout.
"We loved it here," Phillips says, adding, "We didn't want to move. Everybody knows everybody and we were all, all happy here."
The massive remediation coupled with education programs worked. Lead levels went down, and the creeks improved on their own. Federal money surging into the town paid for a new water tower, a new city hall, and new paving for the roads. Just when it looked like Picher might recover, there was something else.
Ed Keheley watches as rocks and dirt tumble down the steep slopes of a collapsed mine shaft into the sickly green water. The hole is 200 feet deep, 400 feet wide. And it's growing. It's one of 70 big cave-ins in the area. Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers warned that about one-third of Picher could suffer the same fate. Keheley says it was that report that sealed Picher's fate.
"We can't hang onto the Picher that we all knew. It's gone," Keheley says.
Frank Morris is a reporter with member station KCUR in Kansas City.