TEARS STILL FLOW IN TAR CREEK: Today, Tar Creek is an environmental wasteland. Piles of toxic mine debris, known as chat, dot the landscape, and a creek runs red with contaminated water. Scientists still don’t know how to clean up all the pollution that devastated local communities. In this story: images from Picher, the largest of the three mining towns that make up Tar Creek, and nearby areas.
Sometimes described as “America’s worst environmental disaster,” the former zinc and lead mining region of northeast Oklahoma is now labeled as a Superfund site, the federal designation for the most polluted places in the country. Lead, cadmium and zinc are scattered everywhere.
The chat piles rise like man-made mountains on an otherwise flat landscape. For decades after the mines were abandoned, these chat piles served as playgrounds for children, rifle ranges for gun enthusiasts and a paradise for off-road vehicles. Chat piles were thought of fondly, akin to a beloved monument in a larger city. But in the 1990s, scientists for the first time blamed the chat piles for making people sick. By 2008, only a handful of residents remained in a place that once was home to more than 14,000 people.
Scores of people — including children — were made sick from lead exposure before being encouraged to move elsewhere through a government buyout program. Ongoing cleanup work is overseen by the local Quapaw Tribe under the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency and various Oklahoma state agencies. Taxpayers have spent, and will continue to spend, millions of dollars on one of the most protracted cleanups in American history.
Even today, scientists have no idea how to stop toxic water leaching from closed underground mining operations dating from the early 1900s. They acknowledge that it is possible, maybe even likely, that the disaster zone will never be safely inhabited again. What flows into Tar Creek is a toxic mixture of brown sediment — technically ferrous iron — created when minerals are carried to the surface and solidified once they hit oxygen.
Concrete slabs, remnants of where homes once stood, serve as tombstones to a community that is long gone. Picher, Oklahoma, is emblematic of what happens when a mining boomtown goes bust. When the minerals were exhausted, companies left or went bankrupt.