Picher, Oklahoma: Toxic Town


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


The town of Picher, Oklahoma is part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site in the northeast most county in Oklahoma and includes land segments in southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas and totals nearly 1,200 acres and 40 square miles (see site description). Specific affected cities/towns include not only Picher, but also Miami, OK, Commerce, OK, Cardin, Ok (now a ghost town due to toxic environmental problems), Hockerville, OK (now ghost town), Treece, KS (abandoned May, 2012 due to toxic hazards), and Quapaw, OK. Picher is also an example of a toxic town (see entry in this dictionary). The site was one of the world’s largest lead/zinc mines.

The problems found in Picher and the Tar Creek site have historical origins in long term mining for lead and zinc in the area. Mining began in 1891. Mining in this area was at its peaks during World War periods, and concentrated mining in the area ran from 1900 through the late 1970s. The lead and zinc mining process creates large quantities of unused mined materials which are stored above ground in piles referred to as “chat” piles. These chat piles can be quite large as illustrated in the photos in the following links (areal photo 1; photo 2; photo 3; photo 4 ).

It has been estimated that between 1890 and 1970, 1.7 million tons of lead was generated from the mining of 181 million tons of lead deposits, producing significant quantities of lead contaminated waste. It was estimated that at the time of clean up, there were several thousand acres (2, 900 or 50 square miles) and 165 million tons of lead contaminated chat (Hu, Shine and Wright, 2007).

The chat is problematic for several reasons. Chat has seeped into and contaminated ground water either directly or as a result of waste storage in underground mine sites. Strong winds spread the chat above ground, and rain causes the chat piles to erode and contaminate the environment. Additional problems were presented when abandoned underground mines collapsed after years of neglect, causing large sinkholes that are not only a danger in themselves, but also because they present the conditions for the accumulation of lead contaminated water. In addition to lead and zinc contamination, the chat contains high concentrations of other heavy metals such as cadmium and manganese (Hu, Shine and Wright, 2007).

The Tar Creek Superfund site was recognized officially in 1983, three years after Congress passed Superfund legislation. The first site remediation efforts began in 1984. A study performed in the mid-1990s indicated that 34% of children in Picher had elevated blood lead levels, causing additional concern with the site (for various studies of the site see: Hatterner-Frey et al., 1995; Hu, Shine and Wright, 2007; Neuberger et al., 2009; Schaider et al., 2007; see also, Tar Creek Chat Paper>). Studies of the cite conducted in the late 1990s found that the concentration of heavy metals of various types were 8-10 times higher than found in non-Tar Creek sites. By 2004, health problems continued to be associated with the site. In that year the State of Oklahoma began a further remediation effort. By 2006, health benchmarks continued to indicate health risks for residents, and the remediation effort was transformed into a resident relocation effort Following these relocation efforts, today, Picher is a ghost town.

The toxic problems in Picher also involve environmental justice issues of concern to Native Americans. Much of the land originally converted into mining sites was owned by the Quapaw peoples. In the 1870s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sold part of the Quapaw reservation to mining interests over the objections of the Quapaw, ruling that the Quapaw were “incompetent” to make such a decision. This is a practice that continued more than 100 years later in efforts to remediate the site, during which additional Quapaw reservation holdings were sold supposedly to facilitate site remediation.

It has been estimated that somewhere between 60-70% of the contaminated chat piles are located on Quapaw lands. Several Native American tribes including the Quapaw, Cherokee, Miami, Peoria, Ottawa, and Eastern Shawnee inhabit these lands. While a large portion of the chat piles are found on Native Indian lands, only 20% of the population in the Tar Creek Site is Native American, indicating that placement of mines and chat sites adversely impacts Native American communities with regard to their placement. A study (US EPA, 1994) of blood lead levels among Native American children in 1994 found that 34% had blood lead levels above 10 micrograms/deciliter of blood (for follow up study see, Malcoe et al., 2002).

The problems the site poses to Native Americans living in the area remain. This has led some to discuss the environmental justice issues posed by this and similar areas as examples of “sacrifice” areas where Native American ways of life and peoples have been sacrificed to promote the American way of life (more on sacrifice area>; more generally see also, Hooks and Smith, 2004; for a more extensive analysis of environmental justice problems for Native Americans living near this site see, Johnson, 2009).
Further Reading

In this dictionary see:”Toxic Towns” entry


Hattemer‐Frey, Holly A., Robert E. Quinlan, and Gary R. Krieger. 1995. Ecological risk assessment case study: Impacts to aquatic receptors at a former metals mining Superfund site. Risk Analysis 15, 2: 253-265.

Hooks, Gregory and Chad L. Smith. 2004. The Treadmill of Destruction: Sacrifice Areas and Native Americans. American Sociological Review 69, 4: 558-575.

Hu, Howard, James Shine, and Robert O. Wright.2007. The challenge posed to children’s health by mixtures of toxic waste: The Tar Creek superfund site as a case-study. Pediatric Clinics of North America 54, 1: 155-175.

Johnson, Larry G. 2009. Tar Creek: A History of the Quapaw Indians, the World’s Largest Lead and Zinc Discovery, and the Tar Creek Superfund Site. Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing.

Malcoe, L.H., R. A. Lynch, M. C. Kegler and V. J. Skaggs. 2002. Lead sources, behaviors, and socioeconomic factors in relation to blood lead of Native American and White children: a community-based assessment of a former mining area. Environmental Health Perspectives 110, Supp. 2:221–231.

Neuberger, John S., Stephen C. Hu, K. David Drake, and Rebecca Jim. 2009. Potential health impacts of heavy-metal exposure at the Tar Creek Superfund site, Ottawa County, Oklahoma. Environmental Geochemistry and Health 31, 1: 47-59.

Schaider, Laurel A., David B. Senn, Daniel J. Brabander, Kathleen D. McCarthy, and James P. Shine. 2007. Characterization of zinc, lead, and cadmium in mine waste: implications for transport, exposure, and bioavailability. Environmental Science & Technology 41, 11: 4164-4171.

U.S. EPA, Region 6. 1994. Five Year Review. Tar Creek Superfund Site; Ottawa County, Oklahoma.

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