Okla. town, contaminated by years of mining, now a ghost town

Kansas town wants to follow in its path

The Picher, Oka. water tower is seen behind a building damaged by a lightning strike and subsequent fire in Picher, Okla.

? Two years ago, Orval “Hoppy” Ray vowed it would take someone meaner than him to make him leave the town where he was born.

But now the crusty, 84-year-old former miner is moving out, leaving behind a blighted, ghostly landscape, its soil, water and air poisoned by generations of lead-ore extraction that produced bullets for both world wars.

After two heart attacks and a tornado that badly damaged his house, Ray lost whatever fight he had left and decided to accept a government buyout, as nearly all his neighbors in Picher have already done.

“You can’t fight City Hall,” said Ray, who worked Picher’s lead mines in the 1940s and, for now, runs a musty pool hall on the main drag. “They’ve got you squeezed seven ways from Sunday.”

Under the $60 million cleanup program, homeowners and businesses in and around Picher are being bought out, and the buildings will eventually be bulldozed. Some of the contaminated soil has already been hauled away; next to go are the 100-foot-high mountains of lead mining waste that loom over the town.

By early next year, Picher will be little more than a name on a map. From 20,000 people at its peak and about 1,700 when the buyouts started two or three years ago, about 80 are left.

Ray and a few dozen other people who had hoped to make a last stand here changed their minds after a tornado tore through Picher in May 2008, killing six people and leveling more than 100 homes.

“Dad had to say yes to a buyout,” said his 62-year-old son, Steven. “I had damage. Wallpaper’s buckling. I got to get the hell out of there.”

Some guess as few as four residents, a dozen at most, will stay, in many cases because they are too stubborn or fearful or sentimental to move, despite buyout offers of around $60,000 for a modest house.

The people who do try to stay, like Jean Henson, will have to survive in a near-wasteland without utilities, police or laws.

“I grew up in the country; we had to haul water,” said Henson, 58, who has asthma, emphysema and other ailments. “If I have to, I can do it again.”

These are scenes from a town marking its final days: A dust-coated General Electric wall clock sits in a store window, its hands stopped at 2:20. Dogs and cats roam Main Street, searching for scraps of food.

Hoppy’s pool hall is one of the last places still open. The thrift store is gone; so is the post office. The schools closed in July, and City Hall will be shuttered by September. Most of the traffic through Picher comes from the dump trucks hauling tons of lead waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently warned those who stay behind that the water will eventually be shut off.

“Some people still just don’t believe it,” said Larry Roberts, operations manager of the federal fund that helps families move out of lead-polluted communities. “I guess when the taps are shut off, they’ll realize the situation they’re in.”

Picher is probably among the bleakest, most contaminated spots in one of the biggest Superfund cleanup sites in the country, a 40-square-mile expanse of former lead- and zinc-mining towns that extends into Missouri and Kansas. Within that zone, the creek spews orange from pollution, mine cave-ins and sinkholes threaten, and lead dust has fouled nearly everything.

Treece, Kan., less than a mile away, can barely be called a town: dilapidated houses, sinkholes as large as baseball fields and uncapped mine shafts pock the terrain. There, federal lawmakers are considering a $3.5 million bill to buy out the last 70 families.

“They say it is not worth buying us out, but they don’t live here,” says Treece Mayor Bill Blunk. “They don’t know what we go through.”

At the pool hall in Picher, Ray recalled the glory days before the mines closed nearly 40 years ago: The football game in which Picher’s broad-shouldered mining boys demolished a neighboring town’s team 115-0. The one-room houses on Fourth Street that made up the red-light district. The saloons with names like the Bloody Knuckle.

The pool hall doubles as a museum. Hardhats line the walls, and hunks of calcite, dolomite and galena hewn from the town’s mines are displayed in a glass case as if they were championship trophies.

“This is Dad’s life,” said his son, who is also waiting to be bought out. “This is the heart and soul of who he is.”