As the chief of the local housing authority, John Sparkman knows the numbers as well as anyone.

Forty homes demolished in the past two months as part of a state-sponsored buyout of families in the Tar Creek Superfund area.

Eighty more targeted for removal by federal authorities.

And more empty lots than he bothered to count -- sites vacated by mobile-home owners unwilling to live any longer on lead-tainted land.

The state of his home town?

"Done," he said simply. "The mood is just awful."

Picher's slow decline began half a century ago, when mining began to play out. The town's future darkened in 1983 when the federal government designated it a Superfund site, citing hazardous lead and zinc levels.

In the two decades since, the town's population has dropped 25 percent. Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 1,623 people lived in Picher, but Sparkman said he doubts that as many as 1,000 are here now.

Two convenience stores barely can keep their doors open.

The high school football team mustered enough players, 25, to forestall a drop to eight-man competition. Elementary school enrollment dropped about 30 percent from last year.

"It's really been an emotional year," said Picher native Kim Pace, 47, the elementary school principal, who supervises 11 classes now, five fewer than last year.

Hastening Picher's decline over the last year is a $3 million state buyout aimed at evacuating young families from a 40-square-mile area where blood-lead levels in children are as much as 11 times the state average and where cancer, learning disabilities, asthma and seizures seem more common. The buyout, officials said, cost the town at least 30 residential and commercial utility customers, leaving 610 as of last week -- a drop of more than 100 from a year ago.

Despite the health scare, some residents bristle over the buyout.

"I'm 78 and still going good," said retiree Fred Von Moss, a part-time Baptist minister. "There are a lot worse places than this."

Von Moss said he recognizes the need to move youngsters from the Superfund site. But razing perfectly good homes, he said, makes no sense when they could be made available to adults.

"Why tear it down?" he said last month, watching demolition of a 7,000-square-foot home east of Picher. "They tore some beautiful homes down. People could have lived in them."

Not all news here is dire: A $280,000 City Hall opened last year. Construction is under way on a $300,000 sports complex aimed at serving the youths still here. And slowly, but surely, the piles of chat, or mining refuse, are disappearing, the rock hauled away for highway construction.

But there are far more discouraging signs in Picher and its Tar Creek neighbor, Cardin. Locals say property values have tanked. Worries persist that some remaining homes and buildings could disappear into giant sinkholes created by long-abandoned mine shafts.

"For the trend to change, there's going to have to be some drawing cards for them to come in," Bob Walker, the Picher-Cardin superintendent of schools, said of the prospect of new residents. "Frankly, I don't see any at this time."

If nothing major happens, some envision a day in the not-too-distant future when little is left of Picher and Cardin, except an aging population with no means of escape -- at least financially.

"The majority of people are wanting out," said Sparkman, 45. "What are they going to do when they can't borrow money on their house to fix it up or pay a medical bill, and they've lost all their equity?

"It's really kind of eerie."