Oklahoma’s plan for Picher to cost $50 million

The people of Picher, Okla., are leaving.

In early 2006, a federal study determined that areas of Picher and the surrounding communities of Cardin and Hockerville in Oklahoma were at risk of caving in. The area is honeycombed with abandoned underground lead and zinc mines.

That study led U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., to push for a buyout of the Picher area. The federal Environmental Protection Agency already had spent millions trying to clean up the polluted chat piles and other waste left from more than 100 years of mining in what is now the Tar Creek Superfund site.

In 2005, Oklahoma had set up a buyout for families in Picher with children age 6 and younger who were determined to be especially at risk of lead poisoning. Lead and other waste metals were carried in the wind off the chat piles, saturating the surrounding soil, including residential yards.

Buying out the people of Picher, population 1,640 at the time of the 2000 census, is estimated to cost up to $50 million. It is unclear how long the buyout will go on because so far only $20 million has been appropriated.

The buyout is optional and not everybody wants to move, including Picher resident Jon Finn.

“I’m going nowhere. I’m staying here till I die,” Finn said.

Finn, who makes model wooden mine derricks for a living, said his father and brother used to work in the mines. Both died of tuberculosis.

“A lot of people say they’ve had trouble breathing because of that lead,” he said, “but I ain’t had no trouble.”