Nobody’s looking for a home in the northeast Oklahoman towns of Picher or Cardin. Both sit smack in the middle of Tar Creek, one of the most toxic waste sites in the United States. The list of health problems present in these towns is ridiculously long. All of them are byproducts of long-gone lead and zinc mines in the area.
Lead is in the water. It’s in the air. At one time, more than 17 percent of children in the area had high enough levels of lead in the blood to be considered dangerous by federal standards. Almost one-quarter of pregnancies in these towns ended in miscarriage. Kids developed learning disabilities. Kidney disease and general neurological damage ran rampant through the entire population. Various cancers popped up in disproportionate numbers. These are facts gathered 10 years ago. Things have improved a bit, but not enough to get anybody excited enough to move back to Picher or Cardin.
Illnesses aren’t the only threat in the Tar Creek area. Old and unfortified mines have created sinkholes large enough to swallow baseball fields. That’s not the kind of land anybody’s liable to use to reinvigorate these lost communities.
In 1984 – three decades ago – the U.S. government declared Tar Creek a Superfund site, making it eligible for federal sponsorship of the clean-up effort. The Oklahoma legislature passed the Oklahoma Plan for Tar Creek, an effort to relocate citizens of Picher and Cardin. Other efforts are being made to clean the area’s water, such as the University of Oklahoma operation of a large water treatment system. The state is repaving roads littered with lead dust. But nobody’s completely sure if these efforts will yield big results.
Both towns have been almost completely evacuated, with families scattering here and there around Oklahoma. So there’s no longer an immediate threat to people. But the cleanup and planned restoration of the site to its original wetlands state will take roughly 30 years. That’s a long wait, a wait that guarantees there won’t be any resurrection of Picher or Cardin anytime soon.