The history of Picher, America’s toxic ghost town
From all-American town to Superfund Site
Until recently, all we knew about America’s most toxic ghost town was the history of Picher, Oklahoma. A designated Superfund site built on precarious and mined-out ground, exploring is basically out of the question. Luckily, recently, people have been able to look around remotely with drone footage of the eerily abandoned settlement.In the video, mountains of toxic chat can be seen right near homes and buildings. Sinkholes, gnarled trees, and murky pools of water litter the landscape. It’s pretty creepy. Looking at the town now, it’s hard to picture it as a flourishing, all-American town, but it once was.
The history of Picher, Oklahoma
Picher, Oklahoma was founded around the mine from day one. When lead and zinc ore were found on a claim in 1913, people began to move in. The town was even named for O.S. Picher, who owned Picher Lead Company if that tells you anything. The town’s population peaked in 1926, with 14,252 residents. The drop off after that was steady; by 1960 the population dipped to 2,553. The mine was wildly successful though, generating over $20 billion worth of ore. But, all of that zinc and lead came at a price. When the mines shut down in 1967, they simply left 14,000 abandoned mine shafts, 70 million tons of mine tailings, and 36 million tons of mill sand and sludge. It wasn’t long before the water was contaminated. In 1980, it was designated as part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site. Yep, this isn’t gonna end well.
For a few years, the EPA did work cleaning up the area. But by 2006, it was obvious that the damage was too severe for people to continue to live in the area. Yikes. In April of 2006, the government decided the best course of action was to shut the town down and relocate the residents. In addition to the toxic sludge icking up the water, the mines made the ground that the town was built on unstable. Many of the buildings were, and still are, at high risk for collapse. Cool.
Despite ALL of this, some people remained. One person who stayed was the heroic town pharmacist, who refused to leave as long as other residents remained. He saw it as his duty to make sure residents had easy access to medicine. A devastating 2008 tornado ripped through the town, further disrupting the government’s gradual evacuation plan. Even at the 2010 census, though, about 20 residents remained. The town is quickly decaying, and soon all that will remain will be the mountains of toxic waste and polluted pools of water, a sad reminder of the history of Picher, Oklahoma.
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