Tanja Barnes


Toxic Town: Picher, Oklahoma

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Less than a 100 years ago the town of Picher in Oklahoma was a mining boomtown producing more than $20 billion in lead and zinc ore from 1917 to 1947. Today, Picher is a hazardous waste site as a result of unregulated mining.

Picher fell to ruins due to toxic waste contaminating the air, soil, and water. What’s more, the land is so riddled with tunnels causing sinkholes to swallow up buildings like Godzilla on a rampage.

In 1983, Picher was designated to be part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site by the EPA and identified as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and the environment. Residents who wanted to leave were offered a federal buyout and by 2009, the town’s charter was dissolved.

Today the cleanup of Picher is ongoing and expected to take at least 30 years according to Tyler Powell, Deputy Secretary of Environment for the State of Oklahoma.

So far, the federal government has spent approximately $331 million cleaning up the Tar Creek Superfund, making it the largest hazardous-waste site in the nation. The full cleanup is expected to exceed more than $1 billion.

To date, the US government has received repayment settlements from some of the mining companies responsible for the devastation of Picher including ASARCO ($32 million),  Childress Royalty Co. ($810,918) and EaglePicher ($900,000).

In January 2016, a settlement proposed by the U.S. Department of Justice seeks $3.4 million from Doe Run Resources Corp., $6.6 million from NL Industries and $5 million the U.S. Department of Interior. The government is still pursuing cleanup money from the Blue Tee Corp. and the Gold Fields Mining Corp.

Altogether, it is expected that the “responsible parties” will at most contribute $60 million to the cleanup of the Tar Creek Superfund. The remainder of the costs will be remediated using taxpayer dollars. That is: the mining companies responsible pay 6.6%, and taxpayers pay 93.4%.

It is interesting to note that in 1950, the Eagle-Picher Mining Co. condemned four square blocks of land that the company owned in Picher’s business district due to cave-in dangers that forced out 200 business owners and homeowners.

It’s also worth noting that the Tar Creek Superfund is one of several Superfund sites that EaglePicher is linked to including: Eagle Picher Carefree Battery (New Mexico); Oronogo-Duenweg Mining Belt (Missouri);  Cherokee County (Kansas); Eagle-Picher Waste Disposal Areas (Ohio); Newton County Mine Tailings (Missouri), Eagle-Picher Henryetta (Oklahoma); Eagle Zinc (Illinois); and W ‘c’ St & Porter St (Missouri).

According to Kevin Bogardus at the Center for Public Integrity, “Eagle-Picher Industries Inc. went bankrupt in the 1990s and settled for liability of $41 million to clean up 25 sites and pollution at the company’s smelters in Kansas and Missouri, ultimately paying 37% of that, or about $15 million. Yet the government originally claimed it was owed $77 million for just eight sites. The company’s reorganized successor, EaglePicher Holdings Inc., went bankrupt [again in 2005] and has not yet resolved the government’s $25 million claim for seven sites.”

Unlike the town of Picher, the company EaglePicher is resilient, despite filing twice for bankruptcy. In 2014, the company received a $22 million federal contract from the Department of Defense to produce new lithium-ion batteries.

“This award assures EaglePicher will continue to be the leader in advanced lithium-ion technology for defense applications,” noted Randy Moore, President of EaglePicher.

Moore  also says that the company is dedicated to the “Adherence to the principles of sustainability and environmental stewardship through the conservation of energy and natural resources, risk reduction, pollution prevention, material management and recycling.”

More recently, photographer Sabrina Staires, has an opening on Friday, April 1st of her solo show “Echo,” a project consisting of 16 silk pieces with images from Picher.  The exhibit runs through the end of May at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center in Kansas City.