A Tainted Mining Town Dies as Residents Are Paid to Leave

By Matthew C. Wright
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 18, 2007

PICHER, Okla. -- As they do almost every day, a few men gather at a folding table in the back of the Picher Express, the last gas station in this onetime mining boomtown. Conversation inevitably turns to the arrival of the appraisers, sent by the federal government as part of a voluntary buyout that will, in essence, mean the end of this city.

"If they don't give me enough, I'm not going nowhere," declared Clell "Puzz" Ware, who has lived in Picher all 72 years of his life. His friends around the table burst out laughing. They know that the buyout is likely to be the best offer they ever receive for their property.

"A lot of them talk," Country Girls Cafe owner Vickie Perriman said later. "I imagine once they get that offer, they'll be gone. It's a reality thing."

Signs of Picher's impending death are everywhere. Many stores along Highway 69, the town's main street, are empty, their windows coated with a layer of grime, virtually concealing the abandoned merchandize still on display. Trucks traveling along the highway are diverted around Picher for fear that the hollowed-out mines under the town would cause the streets to collapse under the weight of big rigs. In some neighborhoods, empty mobile homes sit rusting in the sun, their windows broken, their doors yawning open, the detritus of life -- car parts, broken toys, pieces of carpet, rotting sofas -- strewn across their front yards.

"It's like watching somebody that you love very much suffer a long, slow, painful death," said Kim Pace, a lifelong resident and principal of Picher-Cardin Elementary School. Even though "it's the right thing to do, and it needs to happen, you're not ready to give them up."

The culprits of Picher's demise are the same lead and zinc mines that brought the town its prosperity and boosted its population to a high of 16,000 before World War II. But the mines were shut down in the 1970s, and all that is left in and around Picher are about 1,000 people and giant gray piles of mining waste, known locally as "chat," some hundreds of feet tall and acres wide, that loom over abandoned storefronts and empty lots.

The piles are loaded with heavy metals that have contaminated the air and the groundwater and placed the northeastern Oklahoma town in the middle of the Tar Creek Superfund Site, the largest and one of the most polluted in the country. To add to Picher's misery, a federal study released in January determined that the abandoned mines beneath the city could cause cave-ins without warning.

The study sealed Picher's fate, persuading Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the former chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and now its ranking Republican, to drop his opposition to a federal buyout of the town. Before that, he supported funds for a cleanup.

"It saddens me that it took actually the threat of cave-ins . . . to get people to move," Pace said. She blames the high rate of children with elevated blood-lead levels for the disproportionate number of students who struggle with reading and math. Although a definitive link between lead exposure and the disabilities cannot be proved, she thinks that research in the 1990s revealed enough evidence of danger to warrant a buyout.

State officials in Oklahoma, including Gov. Brad Henry (D), eventually arrived at the same conclusion. In 2005, the state offered a limited buyout to families in the Picher area with the most vulnerable children, those younger than 6. Almost all of the eligible families accepted the offer, and the state buyout became the model for the current federal effort.

Vickey Phillips, who still works at the pharmacy in Picher, is raising one of her grandchildren and qualified for the state program.

"I accepted. There was no alternative," she said. "All we had to leave our kids was our house. And if we didn't go now, we wouldn't get anything out of our house." The economic squeeze of a disappearing town will drive even those who opposed the buyout to accept the government's offer, Phillips said. She moved her family to nearby Joplin, Mo., where they had only enough to start over. "They don't give you as much as it takes to replace what you had," she said.

Just how long the town will take to die is anyone's guess. The federal buyout of residents is being done in two phases because only about $20 million of the estimated $40 million to $50 million needed to complete the project has been appropriated. Residents whose properties are at risk of caving in, along with the elderly, the disabled and businesses, are in Phase 1. They can expect official offers from the government as soon as Feb. 1. Phase 2 may take substantially longer.

Officials with the trust established to conduct the buyout hope that Phase 2 can begin in the fall of 2007 if the Oklahoma congressional delegation can quickly secure the rest of the funding. With no guarantee that the federal money will come, Phase 2 residents face at least a year of uncertainty in a nearly empty town.

The buyout offers are nonnegotiable -- or as they say at the Picher Express, "No dickering" -- and residents have a limited window in which to accept or decline. Appraisal values are determined by what it would cost residents to buy or rent equivalent property elsewhere in the county.

Most people are expected to take what is offered. With municipal services likely to dwindle, those who don't take the buyout, said Oklahoma Secretary of the Environment Miles Tolbert, "essentially, without having left their homes, will have moved out to the country."

In fact, local disagreements have shifted from what to do about the town to who gets to leave first, said Ed Keheley, a retired nuclear engineer on the board of the trust in charge of the buyout. "They want out as soon as they can get out. They want out tomorrow," he said.

Keheley recently moved back to northeast Oklahoma. He grew up in Picher and never expected to play a role in wiping away his home town. "It's a sad but necessary step," he said. "The town has been suffering."

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