Oklahoma ghost town is one of the most toxic places in America
PICHER, Oklahoma (KFOR) -- They are the most polluted places in America, specifically targeted because they are a danger to human health. Every year, millions of federal dollars are earmarked for clean-up of these areas, known as Superfund sites. When the Superfund program first began in the 1980s, Picher, Oklahoma, was #1 on the National Priorities list.
Today, it is a virtual ghost town.
It has been a decade since the federal government first declared the area uninhabitable. The Environmental Protection Agency bought out every willing resident, closed the schools, dismissed the mayor and dissolved the charter.
Picher, and a few other tiny towns within the border of the Tar Creek Superfund site in Ottawa County, is one of just a handful of places on Earth considered uninhabitable for humans. The water in Tar Creek water runs red with poisonous lead. The chat piles, man-made mountains of toxic bedrock, loom. The land surface is at risk of collapsing into cavernous mine structures below.
"It's the largest Superfund site in Oklahoma," said Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality Executive Director, Scott Thompson.
Tar Creek is about 40 square miles of land devastated by aggressive digging a half-century ago. Excavation fueled two world wars with enough lead and zinc to make half the bullets fired by American troops. The mines were abandoned in the 60s. The caverns filled with water, now overflow its deadly cocktail at the surface.
"All that water is coming down into the mine, but it's got nowhere to go because of the mine workings," said Quapaw Tribe Environmental Engineer Craig Kreman. "(The water) has worked its way up to ground service. So it's just gushing out like geysers."
The EPA has spent hundreds of millions of federal dollars cleaning-up Tar Creek, which started back in the 80s. Today, they are working alongside the Quapaw Tribe with no end in sight. The tribe is working to clear away the chat piles. About a dozen of them are two million tons or more.
There's so much chat piled on the surface currently, that there are only plans in place to dismantle the piles on the edge of the site. The distal areas threaten communities downstream. The tribe doesn't expect to get to the piles in the core for thirty more years.
"At the current burn rate, what we're getting in grants and tonnage, they're still thinking 30 plus years," Kreman said.
The problem with the piles is they are poisonous to the development of young children.
"The primary concern with the material is the lead that's in it," Thompson said.
The kids who grew up in the tri-state mining district were found to have learning disabilities, respiratory infections and chronic illness. Once Superfund cleanup started, environmentalists began to see how truly deadly the area was. In the early 2000's, large areas of Picher started caving in.
"We've had numerous collapses," said Thompson. "Especially around the old mine shafts. Basically the ground sinks. Maybe all at once. Maybe slowly. Hopefully slowly."
Tar Creek is the biggest Superfund site in Oklahoma, by far. But, it's not the only one.
The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) lists sixteen Superfund sites around Oklahoma.
There are five sites in northeastern Oklahoma Tar Creek:
- Compass Industry (Tulsa County)
- Sand Springs Petrochemical Complex (Tulsa County)
- National Zinc (Washington County)
- Tar Creek (Ottawa County)
- Tulsa Fuel (Tulsa County)
- Wilcox Refinery (Creek County)
There are eight sites in central Oklahoma, including six in the Oklahoma City metro:
- Double Eagle Refinery
- Eagle Industries
- Fourth Street Refinery
- Hardage Criner (McClain County)
- Hudson Refinery (Payne County)
- Mosley Road SLF
- Tenth Street
- Tinker Air Force Base
There are three sites in southern and southwest Oklahoma:
The environmental problems in Oklahoma's most polluted areas range from abandoned refineries to dump sites and more. Many of Oklahoma's most polluted areas have been successfully cleaned up.
In fact, seven sites have already been deleted from the National Priorities List including: Double Eagle Refinery, Fourth Street Refinery, Compass Industry, Imperial Refining, Mosley Road SLF, Sand Springs Petrochemical Complex and Tenth Street.
According to DEQ, National Zinc was proposed to be added to the National Priorities List but was never formally added. The responsible party performed the necessary clean-up.
Three Superfund sites remain on the National Priorities List, but clean-up efforts are complete, including: Hardage (ongoing ground water testing), Hudson (ongoing groundwater testing) and Tulsa Fuel.
There are only four Superfund sites with active, ongoing clean-up efforts: Oklahoma Refining Company, Tar Creek, Wilcox and Tinker.
Eagle Industries was recently proposed to be added to the National Priorities List. The EPA is conducting the public comment time.
"Superfund is everywhere, even in Oklahoma," said OKC Sierra Club President, Johnson Bridgwater.
Some environmental groups are concerned clean up efforts will stall as the possibility of federal EPA funding cuts loom.
“It’s been over a decade since the President signed a budget passed by Congress, but the fact remains parties that polluted the land are responsible for the clean-up costs,” said EPA spokesman, Jahan Wilcox.
So far, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been supportive of the Superfund program, even after the White House recommended drastic cuts. The proposed budget for EPA is a 31 percent cut, the proposed cut to the Superfund program is 30 percent; or a $330 million reduction.
Administrator Pruitt has said reducing inefficiencies and administrative costs can accelerate the pace of the clean-ups.
"We have some pretty serious concerns that these sites are actually going to get the attention they need," Bridgwater said.
Whether by ignorance or by malice, pollution is dangerous to human health. When the responsible party is no longer around, Superfund is America's last-ditch effort. Public works to fix what no one else would.
"It has very vividly demonstrated it's far cheaper to do it right the first time than to clean up historical mess," said Rood.
Several Oklahoma Superfund sites found their way to the National Priority List after citizens complained. If you suspect pollution in your area you can call DEQ to report it: 405.702.5100
There are about 1,300 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List. In Oklahoma, there are only 7 remaining on the list.
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