When Mining Attacks
April 9, 2009 3:16 AM   Subscribe

Picher, Oklahoma was part of a major lead mining area in the central US until the middle of the last century, when the mines closed down. It is now the epicenter of the Tar Creek Superfund site. Residents live among mountains of mine tailings known as chat. Heavy metal poisoning is endemic in the area. With fits and starts, things do begin to get done about it, but only very slowly. To add insult to injury, Picher was struck by an EF-4 tornado on May 10th, 2008. The residents are finally suing over the long in coming buyout plan. Shockingly, the buyout plan was put into place with urgency not because of the lead, zinc, and cadmium poisoning, but because the mines are in danger of caving in. There is still word on when the mountains of debris will be removed, or the acid mine drainage stopped. Despite attempts to prevent further contamination in the 1980s and 90s, the waste is still poisoning local creeks and wildlife.
posted by wierdo (15 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
And people still live there, why? I know heavy metals can cause mental problems, which might impair reasoning, but seriously folks! It's like that town in PA with the underground coal fire. What is it that causes people to just sit on such an obvious bad situation until the government forces them out, instead of picking up and moving when it's clear that the place is unlivable?
posted by explosion at 4:03 AM on April 9, 2009

How would you move if you can't sell your house? These aren't exactly rich people.
posted by octothorpe at 4:38 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cacher also makes an appearance in Neal Stephenson and his uncleStephen Bury's Interface as...a town full of crazy people. One of whom happens to be the hedge fund manager for a global conspiracy.

Under any name, he's a bit over the top.
posted by sixswitch at 4:54 AM on April 9, 2009

...aaaand I somehow read Picher as Cacher. Whoops.

Who's in left field?
posted by sixswitch at 4:55 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

What is it that causes people to just sit on such an obvious bad situation until the government forces them out, instead of picking up and moving when it's clear that the place is unlivable?

Money, or lack thereof. As octothorpe says, these are not wealthy people -- many families worked the mines for generations and have only one real asset: their home and the land it sits on. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the remaining folks are the 2nd or 3rd (or more) generation to live in that same house.

If you can't sell your house, and what pension / social security funds you have available go towards things like medical care for your chronic conditions and putting food on your table, how are you going to pick up and move?
posted by anastasiav at 5:47 AM on April 9, 2009

The reason they can't sell their house is that it's worthless. Good maybe for its scrap components, if they aren't tainted to all hell with heavy metals. They don't have any assets, they just don't realize it yet.

The problem is that this kind of stuff is a slow disaster, rather than a flood, hurricane, tornado, or earthquake. They are completely devastated, and they need to get out of there, because it's not good for their health, or their kids. But because it's not "much worse" tomorrow than it was yesterday, they'll stay.

But they have community, don't they? Hands, backs, and shoulders to rebuild buildings in a safer location? Moving from the town to the big city in hopes of a job might not work, but why not to the next town over, or just start a new town? Maybe I just don't understand how it is to despair so much as to have no hope, that remaining in such a place to rot and die seems preferable to getting out.
posted by explosion at 5:55 AM on April 9, 2009

Who's in left field?

No, Who's on first.
posted by hippybear at 6:16 AM on April 9, 2009

I am a filmmaker and one of my jobs is camera man for a Disaster Relief organization in Oklahoma and I was actually assigned to Picher.

Its a very "unique" situation. When we got on the ground there we asked all the same questions and we came to the interesting discoveries about the hidden pshyce' of the town.

As stated above that before the tornado the town was a mid a government buy-out to anyone who cared to move they were offered a fair amount for their homes although that usually wasnt the problem being property was so dirt cheap in the town that fair or above value couldnt amount to much in any of the surrounding towns and certainly not a large city.

It's a very tight knit community and so most of the people living there don't have to much extended family being the whole family picked up and moved during the mining boom.

On top of this the vast majority of people who are (were when were there) are there because of just plain stuborness. It could be deduced to the same reasoning behind so many middle eastern land battles. They just feel this overbearing pride and entitlement.
Even though that land is slowly but surely killing them. And the evidences is everywhere.
Everyone had a very sickly look to them as well as a very deteriorated mental state.

I buried myself in covering one particular case of a woman who had an estate ravaged in the tornado. She survived and not only did the isurance company over value all her possesions and in a joint agreement since she had been in prior talks with the government still recieved the original appraised offer although the land was completely worthless now.

In my personal opinion those suing are those who are attempting to squeeze the government for more money because the fact of the matter is the land is completely worthless so I can't say I blame them in this might be a last ditch effort to get however much they need to relocate.
Because the government certainly isnt allowing anyone to rebuild.
posted by Kyle Terry at 6:17 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've lived in the region near Picher for about the last eight years. From what I've garnered from news reports is that a small number of people who have refused to move are simply wanting more money for their homes from the government. A larger number of people have accepted this money and left. When the tornado hit, I think a general assumption was that it was the final nail in the coffin.

While they aren't being offered six figures, 60k will go a long way in that area, as well as Southwest Missouri. It could easily buy a decent home or go toward paying a significant portion of the cost.
posted by Atreides at 6:24 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by melissa may at 6:33 AM on April 9, 2009

Plants that can clean heavy metals from the soil. Seems like they might want to start planting these everywhere, fast.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 7:08 AM on April 9, 2009

Kyle Terry wrote: She survived and not only did the isurance company over value all her possesions and in a joint agreement since she had been in prior talks with the government still recieved the original appraised offer although the land was completely worthless now.

Interesting. All the stories I've read say that the buyout trust has reduced the value of any buyout offer by the amount of any insurance money the homeowner got after the tornado.

Additionally, it's arguable whether the valuations are in fact fair. One of the linked articles contains a blurb about one woman who owes about $70,000 on her house, yet the trust is only offering $60,000 for it. You can't really cry real estate bubble in a place like this.

It turns out that The Creek Runs Red is available on Hulu. Anybody who has 55 minutes to spare ought to watch it.
posted by wierdo at 11:15 AM on April 9, 2009

Legal issues with collecting $ from PRPs and relocating the residents aside, the site can only get cleaned up as fast as they can sell the mountains of waste. Anyone in the market?
posted by chiraena at 8:28 PM on April 9, 2009

I used to live in the region and visited Picher a number times. The amazing thing is that just ten years ago, long after it had become obvious to most folks that the town would have to be abandoned and much of the population had moved away, the banks were still lending money to buy houses in Picher at prices similar to other Oklahoma communities. Hell they were soliciting people to refinance!

By that time the people who were still left were the ones who fiercely believed that there was nothing wrong with a little lead in your system. That was just left wing propaganda. We have raised three generations of our family in this town--are you saying there is something wrong with us? They told one another this every day for years and were completely sold.

I wanted to organize a big oral history project on the last days of Picher but I never got around to it and them I moved away...
posted by LarryC at 9:55 PM on April 9, 2009

This is a very good post. I grew up in Southwest Missouri and still live there on an on and off basis. Picher has been in the headlines for years. I often wonder if folks in the entire Tri-State Mining Region (which encompasses towns like Joplin, Missouri and Pittsburg, Kansas) will suffer from similar health problems. Joplin, Carl Junction, and Webb City were at the heart of the district and will occasionally experience a sinkhole when an old abandoned mine shaft opens up.

One memory that sticks out in my mind is that I was once waiting for a meeting when I struck up a conversation with a woman nearby. When I told her where I was from, she frowned and said that she had worked for years as a nurse in the cancer ward at one of Kansas City's largest hospitals, and said that almost all of her patients came from towns from the Tri-State Mining Region in Northeast Oklahoma and Southwest Missouri.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 4:38 PM on April 10, 2009

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