This is Picher, Oklahoma, an American exclusion zone. An acquaintance with an enthusiastic political streak recently told me Picher, Oklahoma is a ghost town because of a tornado. It’s true, an F4 tornado did strike Picher in 2008 and damaged 150 homes, but it was merely the final straw. From 2000 to 2010, Picher’s population dropped from over 1,600 residents to twenty.
Picher is a town destroyed by industrial abuses, specifically, the mining industry. This former town near the Kansas border dis-incorporated in 2009 and has three real problems.
First, the mining industry disposed of their mine waste, known as “chat,” in huge mounds right on the ground, creating huge artificial hills. The chat is toxic, and the fine grains from the chat piles blow all over town, settle on everything and people breathe them in.
Second, when it rains, runoff from the chat piles gets into the local water supply, as does water from abandoned mineshafts where there are no longer any pumps to keep them from flooding, and the town water becomes hazardous to drink. The pollution of Picher caused a plethora of health problems for area residents.
Lastly, and most frightening if you ask me, is the undermining of the town. The lead and zinc mined in this area was gathered from huge caverns excavated underground by the miners. It was later found the mines had been excavated so close to the surface that tree roots could be seen on the roof of the caverns in some cases. Portions of Picher collapsed into massive holes which had compromised the ground. In 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers determined 86% of Picher’s buildings were dangerously undermined and subject to collapse.
Our friend MJ Masilko sent in these incredible photos she shot in Picher in 2010, saying “We were on our way to a wedding and only had about an hour to walk around, not even close to enough time!” Her comments accompany some of the photos below.
“A gas station a mile or so outside of Picher, on the Kansas/Oklahoma border.”
“The exclusion zone sign and the line of concrete pillars are also just outside of Picher. The concrete things are everywhere, parts of the old mines. And the taller concrete things, I’ve been led to believe, were smelters for the lead.”
“These are all from the town of Picher, I believe all from along the highway that runs through there. For such a deserted town, there’s a LOT of traffic through Picher. The only alternative highway to the turnpike between Joplin and Tulsa runs through the center of town. Also if you’re there taking pictures along the highway, everyone thinks it’s a good idea to roll down their window and yell at you. At least they do if you’re 5 months pregnant and dressed like you’re on your way to a wedding.”
“All photos were taken in October of 2010. There are some on here of Main Street, which is a block or two over from the highway where everyone drives through. Somewhere on or next to Main Street was where there was a collapse into a mine, which is what really got the ball rolling on buying out the town. I didn’t see where that hole was, but we only did about 4 or 5 blocks of Main Street, and it was off the side, so could have been by us and we didn’t see.”
“More of the buildings that remain along Main Street. We spent a lot of our time over there, because it was quiet and beautiful, exactly how a ghost town should be!”
Today, Picher is known as the Tar Creek Superfund site and is considered uninhabitable, although a few holdouts remain. It is one of, if not the worst, industrial environmental disaster in the United States, and one of very few industrial exclusion zones on the planet. Other notable examples are Fukushima and Pripyat/Chernobyl.
Even apartment buildings stand vacant in Picher. MJ told us she wasn’t aware of the risk of collapse until after she visited and shot these photos. Scary.
This one got hit by the tornado.
If you went to this church, would you stand for the mining industry piling toxic waste on the ground, right across the road?
In the forties and fifties when Picher was booming, it was a different time and people did not guard their treasures the way we do today.
Look closely at the photo below. To the left of the church, through the trees, a huge chat pile.
The chat piles look like the Badlands of the midwest. Unfortunately, these are now really bad lands and Picher, Oklahoma will revert back to nature in the coming century.
See also: Picher’s Toxic Twin, Cardin, Oklahoma.
Photos by MJ Masilko, Original content copyright Sonic Tremor Media