Ben Paynter / Wired Magazine – 2016-01-11 15:16:17
Take a Tour of America’s Most Toxic Town
Ben Paynter / Wired Magazine
PICHER, Oklahoma (January 4, 2016) — Larry Roberts angles his white Mercury Grand Marquis into the empty parking lot of a tiny cafe, G & J’s Gorillas Cage, and cruises into a space near the front door. The restaurant’s red and white metal trim is faded and rusted, and the lightbulb-lined roadside sign has been dark for years. Hand-painted placards in the windows advertise burger baskets, corn dogs, and a couple of untruths — “Last Place in Picher!” and “Yes, We’re Open!”
When it closed in March, the Gorillas Cage was the only restaurant left in Picher, Oklahoma. Roberts is here to make sure the owners have cleared it out for demolition. Roberts, the operations manager of the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust, works about 10 miles away in the town of Miami.
His job is to inspect contaminated buildings that the state of Oklahoma is going to buy and tear down. A retired state representative, he has a rosy face and sports a pressed plaid button-up. He rolled up his car windows before he hit the city limits. “There’s still dust in the air,” he says in a laid-back Midwestern drawl. “And I wouldn’t drink the water.”
Climbing out of the Mercury, Roberts notices an uprooted mailbox leaning against the side of the Gorillas Cage and a pickup truck loaded with restaurant equipment. Up and down the street, storefronts are boarded up, empty, dark. Mounds of fine white grit called chat — leftover minerals from mining operations — loom over the town, 200 feet high. Roberts grabs his clipboard. “Let’s get this over with,” he says.
The Gorillas Cage — named for Picher-Cardin High School’s mascot — has been gutted. The tables and chairs are all gone. In fact, there isn’t much of anything inside except for a walk-in refrigerator. “We didn’t have anyone left to sell food to,” co-owner Gary Cox, 69, tells Roberts as he follows him around the room.
Roberts ticks a few notes on his clipboard as Cox’s sister and business partner, Joyce, 75, shakes her head and tears up. They both grew up here, she says, and have never been sick. Now they feel pushed out. “It’s an outrage,” Joyce says. “But we can’t change it, so we are moving on.”
Picher sprang up as a 20th-century boomtown — the “buckle” of the mining belt that ran through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. The earth underneath it produced most of the lead for US bullets in World Wars I and II and enough zinc to literally galvanize construction of the American suburbs.
These raw materials were used to create stronger, water-resistant metal alloys, better batteries, and dietary supplements — the base materials of a modern society. Population peaked at 14,000 in 1926. When the lode ran dry in 1970, the mining companies moved out.
Picher eventually became a Superfund site, and half a decade ago the state government offered residents an average of $55 per square foot to evacuate their homes. By September 2009, the police force had disbanded and the government dissolved. Picher was a dead city.
Except that a few people refused to leave. They call themselves chat rats, a loose and increasingly self-reliant colony armed with cell phones and Wi-Fi for communication and guns for driving off scrap-metal scavengers. It’s a life bordering on squalid — on the way out of the Gorillas Cage, Roberts spots shovel marks around the base of the burned-out signpost, the beginning of an attempt to steal it. Across the street, a former auction-house parking lot has become a dumping ground for tires.
On the drive back out of town, he passes the abandoned high school and notices that the arts and crafts building has burned down. A man appears to be helping himself to bookshelves from an open classroom. Roberts can’t figure out why anyone would turn down the relocation money he’s offering. “Most people have bettered themselves through this process,” he says. “Now there are only radicals left.”
The apocalypse is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed. Urbanization has lured more people to bustling metropolises, but precious little thought has been given to what happens when these cities fail. Over time, the underlying systems and processes of civilization — from lead mining to offshore drilling to car commuting — slowly poison us. Power grids brown out, the climate heats up, and industrial accidents ravage ecosystems and cities alike.
For all the famed cities with thousands of years of continuity — Paris, London, Cairo, Athens, Rome, Istanbul — most cities just stop. Picher isn’t simply another boomtown gone bust. It’s emblematic of what happens when a modern city dies: A few people stay behind, trying to hold on to what they can. They are the new homesteaders, trying to civilize a wasteland at the end of the world.
Roberts, for his part, wants nothing to do with them. He accelerates the Mercury south on US 69, trying to get out of town before dark.
When miners found lead in Picher in 1914, the town became the center of that market — just in time for the increased demand for ammunition created by World War I. Soon there were hundreds of mines and thousands of people working the Picher Mining Field of Oklahoma and Kansas. Miners also discovered vast deposits of zinc, which helped keep tanks and other steel products from rusting during World War II.
What actually came out of the ground was crude ore, sedimentary rock laced with valuable metals. To break it apart, miners simply reversed the geothermal processes that created it: They crushed and sorted the ore in
The advent of the electric air compressor allowed miners to use more-powerful drills and water pumps, enabling them to bore deep into the water table. The mills also used froth flotation ponds, pools filled with chemicals that bond to minerals and float even the smallest overlooked specks of lead and zinc to the surface for collection. At their peak in 1925, Picher’s 227 mills sifted 10 million pounds of ore a day.
According to the US Bureau of Mines, the Picher Mining Field yielded 1.7 million tons of lead and 8.8 million tons of zinc between 1891 and 1970. The payoff: about $202 million in total sales. But to get it, Picher processed nearly 181 million tons of ore. What was left after the valuable minerals had been extracted — useless residue on a vast scale — piled up outside the mines, a 7,000-acre ridgeline of fine-grained chat dappled with mill ponds and surrounded by a shale prairie.
The water pumps were shut off when the mines closed; their subterranean chambers refilled with groundwater and leaked acid into nearby Tar Creek, threatening the town’s drinking water. Sinkholes opened under streets and houses. Heavy metal dust from chat piles choked the air. Kids started coming home from swimming in ponds near the mines complaining of what they thought were sunburns, never realizing that the pools were full of caustic chemicals. And most of the mining companies that might have been held responsible were either bankrupt or disbanded.
Places like Picher are why Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 — better known as the Superfund bill. It is essentially a billion-dollar EPA piggy bank established to pay for the containment of deadly leaks and exposures. In Picher, the EPA capped thousands of mine shafts and tapped into a deeper aquifer for city water.
In the mid-’90s, after blood tests showed that 63 percent of Picher’s children were still suffering from lead poisoning, the EPA spent $140 million to replace the topsoil on 2,000 plots of land in the region. In 2000, frustrated by a lack of progress, then-governor Frank Keating appointed a task force to assess the long-term prospects of the area. The final report: The place was unlivable. The town needed to be evacuated.
Six years later, the Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that more than a third of the homes in Picher were undermined by massive voids and that the town was in danger of catastrophic subsidence. In other words, the earth was going to swallow it up.
The subsidence report broke the town. The parents of rival high school sports teams started refusing to let their kids go to Picher for games. With no opponents, the sports program faltered, and many families moved to places with better after-school activities. The elementary schools suffered because many of the younger kids had left during the first state buyout, when the government made a round of offers to families with children under 7.
The smaller population, in turn, couldn’t support local businesses or pay enough tax. This was about the time TV documentary crews started to show up, making films about how scrappy and can-do the remaining residents were.
And then — never say that it can’t get worse — on May 10, 2008, a tornado with 175-mile-per-hour winds touched down near a western chat pile and whirled east through the south part of town. The storm leveled buildings, flipped cars, and debarked trees, killing six people and destroying 114 homes. No one opted to rebuild — it was almost like the land itself wanted them out. A year later, the school system and city services shut down completely. The end was nigh.
John Garner watches his friend Tracy Marshall level the barrel of an AR-15 assault rifle at an empty Freon tank a little bigger than a can of paint. It’s perched at the edge of an old mill pond about 50 yards away — a poison oasis in the midst of the chat desert west of town.
Fierce rain dapples the dunes around them. Lightning flashes, reflecting across the metallic dust. Both men wear bandanas across their foreheads. Garner nods, granting Marshall permission to fire. Blam! A bullet explodes through the can, kicking up a plume of water from the pond behind it. “Pick out anything you want,” Garner says. Marshall places the gun at his hip and holds down the trigger — brat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat! — carving out wet chunks of hillside.
“When everyone has left, I’m going to be mayor of this town,” Garner says, maybe half joking. Of course, pretty much everyone has left. But if Picher needs a guardian, Garner certainly has the training. As a teenager, he played a clanging, banging version of car-to-car bumper tag with his buddies and learned every shortcut in Picher. He was an Army MP in Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s and a federal prison guard before coming back to town to raise a family.
These days, he works 7 miles away in North Miami as a welder, but he still feels an immense loyalty to Picher. Garner met his future wife in high school at a track meet. He has “Picherboy” tattooed in flaming script across his stomach. He also has two teenage kids, and he was a member of the city council and the school board before they dissolved.
Today, Garner exhibits a kind of belligerent hometown pride. He went online and ordered black T-shirts adorned with the town name, zip code, and a skull-and-crossbones logo. He also launched the Picherboy YouTube channel, which broadcasts a series of darkly humorous if foreboding episodes about life on the moribund frontier.
In one, he blows up a mailbox with a bomb he made out of gunpowder, toilet paper, and a hollowed-out piece of steel. In another, he explodes an unlucky snowman. A third dispatch shows his son’s friend shooting at potatoes tossed down empty streets.
Back at the chat piles, Garner produces a .40-caliber subcompact pistol — the kind that is extremely loud and launches Vienna- sausage-sized bullets. He aims at an old lawn mower starter far out in the sand and pulls the trigger. Blam!The starter explodes in a shower of metal. “There is now a Make My Day law,” he proclaims. “Mess with my shit and I’ll blow your ass off.”
Afterward, Garner tours his domain. It includes an abandoned picnic area, where he and his now-wife took pictures after their prom, and the charred husks of former houses — at least 13 have been mysteriously torched. In another neighborhood, an entire subdivision is spray-painted with orange X’s, indicating that the homes are to be torn down. Abandoned dogs wander the streets. At an old church with a missing bell, Roberts caught an indie film company shooting slasher erotica.
Society here has essentially been reduced to two factions: inhabitants trying to maintain order and intruders out to disrupt it. Garner takes care of what amounts to the last neighborhood left — two houses and a mobile home across the street from the old elementary school on the southwest side of town. His place is the one with the 5-foot-tall gorilla statue in front, a mascot salvaged from Picher-Cardin High.
Garner, 39, may stay out of a sense of civic duty. Danny and Roberta Blevins, the couple who live in the mobile home, are here because of nostalgia. They’re about the same age as Garner — she’s an assistant dog groomer and he’s a machinist working graveyard shifts one town over.
On their living room wall hangs a shadow box containing a tiny cheerleader uniform; it belonged to their 6-year-old daughter, who died in 2004 when a tree crushed their former trailer early one morning. Their son just graduated from high school in another town and joined the Army.
“We never imagined there’d be so few of us left, but our kids loved it here,” Roberta says. J. Hilliard, 58, a former security guard, occupies the other house. He declined his initial $77,000 buyout offer, figuring that since the EPA spent about $100,000 remediating his yard, the place should be worth that much more in additional value, right?
That miscalculation kept him stuck in Picher, and last spring he got custody of his now-3-year-old grandson and 12-year-old granddaughter, who has asthma. They play on an abandoned playground with sun-bleached hobby horses, their high-pitched laughter and stifled coughs ringing out in a world otherwise devoid of kids.
The little camp has developed an ad hoc community spirit. Residents practice a casual neighborhood watch, so everyone can get to work or shop for groceries without worrying about raiders and scavengers. They help each other out, exchanging butter or eggs for garbage bags or nail polish remover. There aren’t any gas stations left in town, so Garner bought a Mitsubishi Mini Truck with a three-cylinder engine that gets 45 miles to the gallon to save on gas. He painted it toxic green and added bigger tires to make it street-legal and able to drive on the chat piles.
The energy-efficient drywall and insulation Garner added to his house years ago now serve to dampen the roar of the ATV riders who come blazing through the vacant streets some days around dusk. On a recent evening, as his son and daughter played Wiffle ball in his front yard, Garner watched two men roar down off the ridge of a nearby chat pile, chasing each other across unfenced yards and popping wheelies like the town was their own private racecourse. Garner just shrugged and waved. It was nice to see other people.
The Blevins have turned their front yard into a stockpile of anything motorized that might need to be replaced. The bounty so far: a ride-on mower and a couple of push mowers. These are particularly valuable commodities, since a freshly mowed yard signals to potential vandals that there are still people around.
Outside Garner’s little colony, others have found their own ways to survive. Fred Von Moss, a 64-year-old former school custodial supervisor who still remembers the boomtown days, has rigged a makeshift security system — a motion-sensitive light, two dogs, and a shotgun full of birdshot.
Around 1988, he and his wife, Marsha, bought a ranch house here just before they got married, and they won’t leave. She keeps a small garden with tomatoes and zucchini and okra, and he picks wild asparagus from around the edges of the chat piles, hunts quail and duck, and fishes for bass in nearby rivers. Both say they figure that cooking or freezing will eliminate any toxins. In the evenings, they walk the abandoned streets like paved nature trails. “It was kind of eerie there for a while,” Marsha says. Now she’s used to the solitude.
Not too far away, on the northwest side of town, Jean Henson, on disability for asthma, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lives in a leaky 1968 Heritage single-wide that smells somewhat sour. She’s strung a network of hoses and extension cords to her son’s RV next door, the one with the Confederate flag in the window, so he can get water and power.
Down the road, barefooted 70-year-old Tommy Thomas keeps a dozen Labradors and Chihuahuas. On a recent morning he kicks a discarded deer jawbone in his front yard, scanning for rat, raccoon, or possum tracks. He says he’ll eat anything he can kill — or find fresh enough to take back home. “Got a deer just the other day,” Thomas says cryptically. “And you can eat anything with scales.”
The only business still open — though its owner lives out of town — is Ole Miners Pharmacy. Many customers are former residents who come back to pick up their medications, trying to sustain generations-old connections to the area. (Two men in their fifties compare ailments at the counter. Final tally: eight heart attacks, nine stents, and a pacemaker between them.) Everyone in Garner’s settlement smokes or chews tobacco.
And they are all being poisoned. Heavy metals can be inhaled or ingested, and prolonged exposure causes acute toxicity. Most are bio-accumulative, meaning they compound to ever-more-dangerous levels in the organs, bones, and blood. The most potent mining castoffs are cadmium (a byproduct of crushed ore) and lead. Steady exposure to these elements causes fatigue, headaches, memory loss, and irritation in adults.
Lead can also affect the IQ of young children, leading to learning disabilities and autistic behaviors. Over time, the metals will cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease, hypertension, and strokes. Other Tar Creek metals have been shown to cause a Parkinson’s-like effect in adults (attributable to manganese) and diabetes (arsenic) in pregnant mothers.
What’s more dangerous is that everything is mixing together. “People try to look at these things separately, but combined, the effect in many cases may actually be extra toxic or synergistically toxic,” says Bob Wright, codirector of the Metals Epidemiology Research Group at Harvard.
Wright published a study in 2005 showing that manganese and arsenic together increase memory and verbal learning problems in Tar Creek kids. “I don’t think anyone should have to live in an area surrounded by mountains of toxic waste, and I don’t think we really need research to show that,” he says.
Picher’s peculiar experiment in post-apocalyptic urbanism is being further complicated by the land’s original owners. Long before Picher was a mining town, the land belonged to the Quapaw Indian Tribe. Ravaged by smallpox and threatened by settlers, they conceded 30 million acres around the mouth of the Arkansas River to the US government in 1818, and in exchange the tribe eventually received 51,000 acres of reservation land in Northeast Oklahoma. The US government moved them there alongside dozens of other tribes in the 1830s.
When lead and zinc were discovered in Picher, the government displaced the tribe again. Mining interests wanted to buy or lease the land, and when some Quapaw refused to sell, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had them declared incompetent and leased everything to the drilling cowboys. The tribe moved elsewhere on the reservation and reluctantly collected payment from the BIA.
The Quapaw still own 80 percent of the Superfund site that includes Picher. They’ve just never been able to do anything with it because it was already developed. The buyouts changed all that. Once the state buys and demolishes the buildings, the land reverts to the original owners. So Picher now belongs to the Quapaw again. And the tribe wants to clean up its land and try to make it profitable.
“There’s a funk in the air, man. I don’t go over here, because I feel shitty all day,” says John Berrey, chair of the Quapaw. But he thinks the chat rats are performing a valuable public service, keeping the peace so he can send his own work crews in to try to bring the land back to life.
So far, the Quapaw’s work in Picher feels a bit disconnected, like some gamer testing out new theories of settlement-building — Sim Armageddon. The Quapaw hitched a Wi-Fi transceiver to the water tower and will install septic tanks at each remaining household when the sewer lagoon closes later this year. They added new street signs (but they keep getting stolen).
There are no streetlights, but power companies are still providing electricity for homes and rural yard lamps. A regional environmental group says it will donate HEPA-filter vacuums to help everyone keep dust out of their homes. Tribal firefighters commandeered the old fire station, and the Quapaw are training a small police unit that will be cross-deputized with the local sheriffs.
They’ve also found a way to take control of cleanup efforts. Turns out, Indian reservations can wield as much power as states in negotiating environmental regulations with the federal government. In the late 1990s, the Quapaw launched their own environmental agency. Initially, their choice for Superfund director seemed odd: a former miner and geophysicist named Tim Kent.
He spent the first half of his career making drilling maps for a Texas oil and gas company. Then, after visiting a work site in a state park, he realized the company was destroying natural beauty. Kent retrained as an environmental engineer and hydrologist at the University of Texas at Dallas. When he and his wife moved to nearby Joplin, Missouri, he learned about the Quapaw’s project and decided he wanted to get involved.
“I’m not just the token white guy. I’m one of the Caucasians who gets it,” Kent says. “We had to win two world wars, and this was the cost. It’s just sad that we crapped up so much land so that we could kill people.”
Kent set up ambient air monitors around town and recently began analyzing the city’s water supply. What he has found isn’t good. Picher’s air quality doesn’t officially violate federal health guidelines, but those standards were developed decades ago for places that produced a steady concentration of fumes, like gas stations. Random sampling from a fixed location every few days misses the kind of pollution that Picher sees.
“During windy days, we get huge pulses of lead that aren’t measured,” Kent says. He has also noticed traces of iron and sulfate in the city’s deep aquifer and thinks that lead and cadmium will appear next. He says it’s only a matter of time before the water becomes undrinkable.
The state buyout in Picher also featured a dangerous loophole: The agency capped its payments at five acres per deal, and many farmers had more land than that. Their overage didn’t qualify for a buyout, so they’re still in business, living elsewhere but commuting back into the Superfund area to harvest their products.
Everett Green, who runs an 80-head cattle operation just outside of Picher, didn’t leave and says he lets his cows graze on chat-grown grass and drink from mill ponds before selling them at auction — after which they could be distributed across the US. “Of course, we hardly ever eat one of our own cows,” he says, chuckling.
But Kent and the Quapaw have a plan: Charge for chat. As part of the original mining landgrab, the BIA mandated that the companies dump chat where they found it instead of removing it. That decision expedited business and concentrated the fallout. In 2005, Kent and the Quapaw convinced the BIA to lift the ban on chat sales — but the BIA rescinded the decision in 2008. Now others can sell chat, but the tribe, which is appealing the decision, cannot sell the chat that’s piled on its own land.
Standing at the edge of a field, Kent watches a private company do what he’d like to do: Construction workers wet down a pile to control for dust while bulldozers collect the muck. Plastic sheeting lines the work area to collect runoff sludge; portable air monitors will make sure no metal-laced breezes escape. Eventually it gets trucked out for sale to paving companies who use it as a strengthening agent in asphalt, where it gets harmlessly encapsulated.
If Kent can convince the BIA to let the Quapaw do this, he says, over the next 10 years they can ship a total of 10 million tons of chat at $2 a ton. That’s $20 million for the tribe. “There is a right side and a wrong side of a fight, and I really think I am on the right side this time,” Kent says.
Any chat that can’t be sold will likely be injected back into the aquifer. Acid mine drainage is caused when sulfide minerals oxidize, generally near the top of a mine shaft when the water table drops and exposes the sulfide-rich leftovers along the walls to the air.
Kent is in the last stages of a study proving that if you inject the tailings deep beneath the surface they will remain sequestered there. Whatever chat is left — probably about 10 million tons after a few years of export and sequestration — will be collected in a landfill.
Long-term, even a successful cleanup will raise new threats to the holdouts. Kent and Berrey hope that the federal government will allow the tribe to take the entire Superfund site back into trust. Then the Quapaw want to dam the area and flood it, creating a self-cleaning, metal-leeching wetland. Berrey dreams of renaming the region Crystalline Creek and bottling its water for sale. By then, he figures, most of the chat rats will be gone — one way or another. “I just don’t believe in people sticking it out for that long,” he says.
This summer, Hilliard, the unemployed security guard, went back to Roberts and reapplied for a buyout offer. He moved to relative safety in Miami — the Oklahoma one. But he misses his old home and is trying to buy it back. Meanwhile, in late 2009, Congress approved a $3.5 million buyout for Treece, Kansas, just across the state line from Picher.
The area suffers nearly all the same maladies but had to wait longer for redress because it’s in a different EPA region. Many Treece residents worked in Picher and lost their jobs while waiting for formal permission to move.
Hilliard’s grandkids went back to their mom a few months ago, making Garner’s 14-year-old daughter the youngest person in Picher. And when Hilliard moved out, he left his house dark — and the streets around Garner’s encampment a little darker, too.
Garner says he’s undaunted — he’s looking to buy an industrial turf mower to keep neighboring yards looking neat. But he knows there’s no next generation of chat rats looking to carry on the fight.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.