The town that turned into a pile of chat

As disaster areas go, Picher, Okla., seems an unlikely candidate. But disasters can be deceiving. Not all of them are big and obvious like a tornado or a flash flood. Or a world war, which is what indirectly caused Picher’s disaster.

The town, which lies in the northeast corner of the Sooner State, is essentially barren today, labeled as one of Americas “most toxic cities,” but it was quite a happening place around the time of World War I. The reason it was happening was because there were lead mines, and our boys needed bullets. About half of all the bullets we fired during that war originated in Picher.

Picher would go on to become one of the largest lead and zinc exporters in the world, especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which thrust America into the Big One, WWII. Metal mines in Picher produced what some estimate was the majority of all the lead used in that war.

But massive manufacturing campaigns produce some kind of byproducts. In this case, it was a white, gritty substance commonly called “chat.” The chat was, naturally, lead-based, and piles of it in Picher often reached 150 feet high and stretched for 400 yards.

After the second war, people didn’t know what we know today about lead: that it is toxic and harmful to humans. Picher residents back then thought they’d scored with the stuff, using it to fill in driveways, making kids’ sandboxes out of it and riding the hills on bikes and motorcycles. It was like something out of the first part of a movie that you know will have an unhappy ending.

Creeks in the town today are still red-tinted from arsenic and cadmium contamination that years ago caused what townsfolk thought was sunburn but was actually chemical burns. It was many years before the truth came out.

In the 1990s, a school counselor learned about there being a link between learning disabilities and lead poisoning. The school in Picher, now abandoned, was built right on a toxic waste dump, making it not surprising that almost 50 percent of students there had dangerous lead levels in their blood, 11 times the average in Oklahoma. Lead builds up in the body gradually, and it can’t be removed once it’s there.

In 2005, the government helped to relocate 52 of the residents. An EF-4 tornado relocated the rest three years later. Nothing was rebuilt. The police left town a year later, and the school district finally closed. The town that was once home to 14,000 now has a population of three.

The piles of chat are still there, surrounded by fences and government warning signs. The remains of the school rest on a chat pile. The football field is deserted as are the streets. Defunct power lines remind observers that something used to be going on there but likely never will again. The abandoned church was recently used as a location for an adult film.

The leftover chat is being used today as an ingredient in road-paving material. A county commissioner managed prevent City Hall from being demolished and got permission for his road crews to use it. Eventually it became a museum, with old photos telling the story of a town’s rise to relative greatness followed by turning into a pile of chat.

I guess it’s one of those “a little too late” stories, like many in America where people find out that what they thought was a good thing was a very bad thing, but there isn’t enough time to reverse the damage.

Nick Glidewell