Shadows of a town destroyed by toxic waste

Shells of houses still stand in what was once the town of Picher which tonnes of toxic waste made unlivable.

From a distance, they look like mountains sloping across the Oklahoma plains. But as my reporter, cameraman, and I get close, we see they’re massive piles of tiny rocks: millions of tonnes of toxic waste called chat that came from the abandoned lead mines that make up the site of Tar Creek.

This place was once booming, home to small mining communities. Shells of houses still stand in the what was once the town of Picher, a reminder that it used to be home to close to 15,000 people at its peak.

Ranny McWatters is treasurer of the Quapaw Native American tribe that owns the land. He grew up in the area and has fond memories of playing on the chat piles. “Wintertime was perfect for sliding down,” he says, telling us about how he and other children approached the lead waste in their backyards. “They’d get a piece of cardboard, slide down the chat piles on a piece of cardboard, get an old car hood and slide down it.”

The people living in Picher and other parts of Tar Creek didn’t know how dangerous the mounds of waste were. By 1967 the mines had closed, but the piles of waste remained. The toxins leach through the ground, turning the soil and water a rusty orange, the dust getting into pipes, houses, and drinking wells. “The groundwater ran into the wells, it had lead content in it,” McWatters says. “Over the years, it got into the children.”

In 1993, a study showed that 35 percent of the children in the area had elevated blood lead levels, a problem which can affect brain development and is irreversible. The study prompted the government to investigate contamination of residential gardens and play areas. Eventually, the government paid for more than 2,000 properties to be remediated.

By the time lead poisoning was found in children, it had been a decade since the area had been marked for environmental cleanup, and it would be more than a decade before most of the residents of Picher moved. The government bought out all but a few people living in Picher in 2009. But if the Quapaw leave their land, they lose their sovereign nation. So hundreds of them remain in their tribal land. It was only in December that the government allowed the Quapaw tribe to start clearing waste from just under a square kilometre of the site where a Catholic church once stood.

The Quapaw are hoping to eventually clear the entire 103 square kilometre site and create a wetland. Tribal members say they’re the best people for the job, because of their connection to the land. As we walk across the site they’re clearing, the tribe’s environmental director Tim Kent shows us a piece of porcelain pulled from the ground. “It looks like a soap dish”, I venture. It’s given to a tribal member to catalogue for a historical site the Quapaw hope to develop.

The cleanup of the Catholic church site has taken a few months. Kent estimates cleaning up all of Tar Creek could take decades.