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The Gen-Xers From Picher, the Nation’s Worst Environmental Disaster

Picher-Cardin High School Yearbook, Senior Class – 1983

The year I graduated from college, 1990, the United States was in a recession and more than 40 percent of new college graduates worked in jobs that did not require a college degree. (1) Struggling to land meaningful work, I answered an ad in The Oklahoman for a gig that paid up to $250 a week. It was for a job as an environmental activist canvassing door-to-door with the Oklahoma Toxics Campaign. The group, which was affiliated with the National Toxics Campaign, was headed Earl Hatley, a lifelong environmental activist based in Oklahoma. The campaign was two-fold:

  1. Educate residents about environmental pollution in Oklahoma;
  2. Raise funds to help fight for clean up of Superfund sites in the state, especially through studies and research.

An activist’s income was generated directly through the donations he or she secured. Campaign workers kept 50 percent of everything donated as long as they completed at least a week or two of canvassing. After two nights, I decided it wasn’t for me. For starters, I was uneasy with the set-up. In the afternoon, a group of about 10-15 people gathered at the offices of the Oklahoma Toxics Campaign located at 300 United Founder Boulevard in Oklahoma City. We piled into a large passenger van and made the long drive to neighborhoods in the Northeast part of the state. As best I can recall, from about 6 to 10 p.m., we canvassed. We knocked on doors, gave a spiel about toxic waste and Superfund sites and asked for donations to fund the campaign. The darker and later it got, the harder it was for me to raise money.

Once again, this was 1990, just seven years after the movie Silkwood exposed a Kerr McGee plant in Central Oklahoma for dangerous practices. I was uncertain about who or what to believe about environmental problems in Oklahoma.

Superfund

Later that same year, I landed a job as a writer in public affairs at a military base in Oklahoma City. The base had been named as a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and targeted for clean up. During the five years I worked at Tinker, I wrote 600 articles, most of which were related to environmental restoration and pollution prevention activities. This included cleanup of the contamination plume looming below the installation and specifically, the mile-long maintenance facility known as Building 3001.

Community Advisory Panel

While at Tinker, I also helped coordinate a lot of public involvement activities required by environmental laws such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The activities included public meetings, regular site updates and an information repository. The best project I worked on was the Tinker Air Force Base Restoration Advisory Board (RAB). I thoroughly enjoyed researching community advisory panels (CAPs) for this project and learning about environmental justice. To make the project even more interesting, Earl Hatley was the environmental activist selected to sit on the RAB.

The environmental engineers I worked with estimated that it would take about 30 years to clean up the pollution at Tinker. I was 22, and could not imagine anything taking that long. Some of those engineers are now in their 70s, and I turn 50 at the end of this month. Tinker remains on the list of Superfund sites and cleanup is ongoing.

Repositories

During the time I helped coordinate public involvement activities at Tinker, I researched all the Superfund sites in Oklahoma and tried to visit most of them including the required information repositories. I was too afraid to tell anyone then, but unlike Tinker, almost all of the repositories were seriously out of compliance. I took great pride in my work on Tinker’s repository even though it was rarely, if ever, accessed by the public. It was housed at the public library in Midwest City, and of course, I color coded all the files. My repository was beautiful, people.

It was definitely an exciting time in my career. I was even offered a job with a startup called Caliber coordinating public involvement activities for the Navy in and around cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. Those same people also wanted me to move Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho to work as an environmental public affairs contractor.

Some fine opportunities came and went. For better or for worse, it has always been hard for me to leave Oklahoma.

Tar Creek

One of the Superfund sites in Oklahoma that especially captured my interest was Tar Creek in the far northeast corner of the state. The site, which includes part of Southwestern Missouri and Southeastern Kansas, consumes all of Oklahoma’s Ottawa County. This was one of two areas I canvassed during that two-day stint as a paid environmental activist. I can’t remember which town we visited, Cardin or Picher, but it turns out, that gig was the real deal.

In 2014, while doing some research for my current employer, I ran into Earl Hatley at a café in Vinita, Oklahoma. We chatted about good times on the Tinker RAB and his legacy of environmental activism in Oklahoma. Standing in that café , I came full circle, and all within 20 minutes of Tar Creek and 30 minutes of Picher and the nation’s worst environmental disaster.

Picherettes, a twirling corps from Picher-Cardin Public School, 1972 or 1973 | Photo Source: Picher Kids on Facebook

Picherettes, a twirling corps from Picher-Cardin Public School, 1972 or 1973 | Source: Picher Kids 

Picher, 1967

I wanted to write this post for a few reasons. First, I wanted to revisit and record my work as an environmental writer and PR practitioner at a Superfund site, Tinker Air Force Base, in the 1990s. Second, and more importantly, I wanted to remember the Gen-Xers who were born and raised in Picher, especially those born in 1967. That was the year most of the mines closed. All those Gen-Xers turn 50 this year, and like I mentioned before, I do, too. Fifty. 

Picher-Cardin High School Yearbook, 1983

The Gen-Xers who grew up in Picher came from generations of prosperous miners who helped produce more than $20 billion in ore from 1917 to 1947. The first miners were members of the Lost Generation (b. 1883-1900), followed by the G.I. Generation (b. 1901-1924 ). Next, came the Silent Generation (b. 1925 to 1942) and finally, the Baby Boomers (b. 1943 to 1960). For decades, they extracted many metals, mostly zinc and lead, but also cadmium. They devoted their lives to an industry that supported not only their families, but fueled war efforts in World Wars I and II.

Picher-Cardin High School Yearbook, 1983

After 1967, Picher’s children grew up with an ever-dwindling population to match the underground voids. They grew up with mounting unemployment to match the mountainous piles of waste. They grew up not understanding the work of their fathers and grandfathers; their mothers and grandmothers.

Chat Rats

Those Gen-Xers were the first generation to inherit a transformed and depleted landscape that could not give to them as richly as it had given to the four generations that preceded them. Instead, they were left with massive piles of chat — fine gravel waste made up of leftover mineral fragments. These toxic mine tailings loomed over Picher’s schoolyards and served as makeshift playgrounds. Kids rode their bikes up and down the chat piles and slid down them on large pieces of cardboard. They swam in lead-contaminated mine pits (sink holes) and ponds. One study even reports that generations of Picher children celebrated their birthday parties on chat piles. (2) Generations of Picher children affectionately referred to themselves as chat-rats and lead-heads. 

Picher-Cardin High School Yearbook, 1983 (Missy, a member of the PHS Science Club.)

The mine waste in Picher covered 25,000 acres and devastated the town’s economy. Abandoned mines filled with groundwater and acid seeped into Tar Creek. Sinking ground over former mine shafts swallowed houses, businesses, dreams.

Picher-Cardin High School Yearbook, 1983 | The caption in the yearbook joked that she needed to clean out her locker.

In 1983, EPA designated the Tar Creek Superfund Site, which includes not only Picher, but Cardin, Quapaw, Commerce and North Miami, Oklahoma. The area is frequently referred to as the most toxic 47 square miles in America. It is located, by the way, just 90 minutes from Caney Valley High School in Southeast Kansas. I graduated from Caney in 1985. In 1983, my parents moved to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, also 90 minutes from Picher. I was fortunate to be able to commute and graduate with my friends.

Picher-Cardin High School Yearbook, 1983 | Picher Letter Jacket

Stroke, Kidney Disease, High Blood Pressure, Heart Disease, Skin Cancer, Anemia

A 2012 study out of Harvard University also states that research from the 1980s and 1990s on the health of those living in or near the Superfund Site found elevated rates of stroke, kidney disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, skin cancer, and anemia. A specific study done in 1996, found that 34 percent of the children in Picher suffered from lead poisoning due to environmental effects, which could result in lifelong neurological problems. You can read more about the tragedy of Tar Creek in a 2004 article in Time Magazine.

Picher-Cardin High School Yearbook, 1983

Apocalyptic Waste Town

Despite remediation efforts, in 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers declared the town unsafe. Turns out, one-third of the town’s homes were threatened by 300 miles of mine shafts. That same year, the government agreed to pay $20 million to remaining residents of Picher and the adjacent towns of Cardin and Hockerville.

And, then, in 2008, as if the apocalyptic waste town could bear anymore sorrow, an F4 tornado ripped through the community. It killed eight people, injured another 150 and destroyed 100 homes. Because it was part of a Superfund site, there were and will be no attempts to rebuild. Today, Picher is a toxic ghost town.

Picher Population Stats by Decade

Historical population of Picher is as follows:

  • 1920:  9,676
  • 1930:  7,773
  • 1940:  5,848
  • 1950:  3,951
  • 1960:  2,553
  • 1970:  2,363
  • 1980:  2,180
  • 1990:  1,714
  • 2000:  1,640
  • 2010:  20
  • 2015:   0

Exhibit

This summer, an exhibition on Picher opened at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, Oklahoma. It closes September 10, and I am hoping to take my kids. I think it’s important for them to learn that one of the only locations in the entire world to be evacuated and declared uninhabitable due to environmental and health damage is right here in Oklahoma.

Back when public schools still had annual Christmas Nativity Scenes | Picher-Cardin High School Yearbook, 1983

Back when public schools still had annual Christmas Nativity Scenes | Picher-Cardin High School Yearbook, 1983

Love and Togetherness in Picher, 1979

The following commentary on Picher appeared in the 1979 Zinco, the Picher-Cardin yearbook. It was written by Chuck McMullin.

This little town that started around the turn of the century is still surviving. Why? How?

This little town has citizens that care and are proud. Its public school systems turns out young men and women who are proud of their heritage and hard workers. This little town has something only a few towns have. It is called togetherness.

With the landmarks of the mining boom fading away, such as the mine derricks and chat piles, and with some ground giving way to form a cave-in, some big city newspapers are taking turns poking pot-shots at this little town. These so called hot shot reporters which come to this town never have open eyes. They only come to look for the things that seem unpleasant and never see the thigns that keep this town alive and together.

These reporters should live with the towns people see the good deeds which come out of this town.

This town has lived through financial and political crises and has come out shining. This little town has weathered countless problems because the people have two things. This town has togetherness and love. This little town is called Picher, Oklahoma.

Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

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9 Comments

  1. Michael

    — good overview of a complicated, painful and persistent situation.
    –about generations: the traditional launch date for the start of the Baby Boom isn’t 1943, but nine months after VJ day, 1946. kind of poetic.

    Reply
    • Jennifer

      Thank you, Michael. The story of Picher is painful, for certain. I’ll check out the start date and make sure I have it down correctly.

      Reply
  2. Christy Turner Easley

    Great story. I grew up in Commerce during that time. When I’m home to visit mom, we drive through Picher and I recall climbing those chat piles. Bittersweet.

    Reply
    • Jennifer

      I can understand how it would be — bittersweet. I would have totally insisted on climbing the chat piles, FWIW. Thanks for stopping by, Christy!

      Reply
  3. Mike McNeely

    There are still a few people living in picher I still own several lots there hopefully one of these years I will get to build a off the grid cabin to spend some time where I grew up

    Reply
    • Jennifer

      That would be really nice, Mike. I hope they remediate the land.

      Reply
  4. John Lord

    Well you know the day about Monday morning quarterbacking.

    Reply
  5. John Lord

    Cool story. At least you did your part in trying to save the town.

    Reply
    • Jennifer

      Albeit, a very small part. Tiny. Miniscule. I wish I’d done more…=/

      Reply

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