What caused a once thriving town in Oklahoma to be declared by the EPA as the most toxic place in America? Was it big government, greed, consequence of war, or perhaps just an industrial project gone awry? This present day ghost town has a terrifying past you will want to know about.

Picher, Oklahoma sprung up almost overnight in the early 1900’s when lead and zinc ore were discovered. It quickly became a township and was incorporated in 1918. The Picher area became the most productive lead-zinc mining field in the area, producing more than $20 billion worth of ore between 1917 and 1947. During World War I, more than fifty percent of the lead and zinc metal used for the war came from Picher. When mining ceased in 1967, so did water pumping from the mines. The contaminated water from 14,000 abandoned mine shafts, 70 million tons of mine tailings, and 36 million tons of mill sand and sludge remained as a huge environmental cleanup problem.

As a result of this environmental hazard area, it was designated as part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site around 1981. Many efforts were made to clean up the area but the contamination was found to be so severe that the government decided to close Pitcher and relocate their residents. Due to the removal of large amounts of subsurface, most of the city’s structures were in imminent danger of caving in. Picher’s giant chat piles (piles of toxic metal-contaminated mine tailings), often used for climbing, sledding and picnicking, were found to be laced with lead. High levels of lead were found in the blood and tissue of residents, cancer levels skyrocketed, and three quarters of Picher’s elementary students were reading below grade level.

For the CNN story on Picher, Oklahoma, watch the video below.

Where is Picher now? Most of the residents didn’t leave the town until 2006 when studies found the town was in imminent danger of collapsing into the mines. In 2008, an EF4 tornado struck the town, killing 8 and injuring over 150 people. It caused extensive damage to many buildings and structures. The city ceased operations as a municipality on Sept. 1, 2009. Gary Linderman, the last remaining resident of Picher, died June 9, 2015, due to a “sudden illness” at the age of 60.

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