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Lead and Mines Decimate Picher

PICHER, Okla. -- Waiting in their cars or on broken sidewalks, the blue-jeaned crowd has turned out for a parade. But they could pass for mourners at a funeral.

They line up along the main drag in front of empty cafes and shops and rusted mining equipment fenced off with barbed wire. Passing time, some press hands and foreheads against windows of stores that went out of business so many years ago it's hard to remember what they sold.

Two graybeards stand near a telephone pole, watching for any sign of action in front of Susie's Thrift and Gift.

"I hate this," the older one laments. "I hate to see Picher go."

"Yeah," the other mumbles, looking down at his shoelaces.

"All those memories."

"Been mined out pretty bad, though."

When the lead and zinc mines all around here closed down, many folks told themselves and promised their kids that Picher could go on. There would always be church, high school football and the Dairy Queen.

But that was nearly 40 years ago, and all the praying and wishful thinking can't undo what's happened.

People are leaving, escaping one of the worst environmental nightmares in the country. A voluntary federal buyout is hastening the exodus.

This is a town's last stand.

"Ol' Picher is just like the rest of us, she's 90 years old and on her last legs," says Orval "Hoppy" Ray, who worked the mines in the 1940s and runs a drafty pool hall in town.

Ray reveals the stubbornness that comes with 82 years of living: He and dozens of other holdouts will not leave, even when there is no city water or police department. No matter how much he's offered for his property, his place will remain open until he's dead.

"I don't think the lights will ever go out," Ray says, but there's something in his voice that leaves room for doubt.

His birthplace is the center of the Tar Creek Superfund site, a 40-square-mile area that also takes in parts of Missouri and Kansas.

For decades, before Picher became a town, miners carved miles of tunnels under its land, and the lead ore they recovered made bullets for both world wars. Neighboring communities were also undercut.

During Picher's boom, its population peaked at 20,000. Saloons and movie parlors lined the streets.

It was a rough-and-tumble way of life: fistfights just for the heck of it, plenty of bravado and wasted paychecks and the understanding that if you were old enough to work a shift in a mine, you were old enough to down a shot of whiskey.

Picher's mines closed around 1970; the wounds they inflicted on the people and land never healed.

Today, Tar Creek runs orange with acidic water that flooded the mines. Cave-ins and sinkholes threaten; a mine collapse in 1967 took nine homes.

Bleak, gray mountains of lead-contaminated chat, or mine tailings, loom around town. Some rise 100 feet and look like sand dunes..

For years, before most knew better, the gravel-coated piles doubled as sledding hills for kids, a Lover's Lane for teenagers and a makeshift proving ground for dirt bikes and the high school's track team.

It will take at least 15 more years to haul the stuff off, for use in highway construction projects, but that's not soon enough.

The polluted dust that blows through every nook of this place has already affected a generation.

In the 1990s, a study found elevated blood lead levels in Tar Creek-area children, and teachers began noticing years ago that students were learning more slowly and couldn't focus.

"Don't put lead in your head," says a sign still hanging next to City Hall, showing a smiling child.

Adults suffered, too. Natives like John Sparkman began having high blood pressure in their 20s. He lost his sister to Lou Gehrig's disease when she was 41, and would lay odds pollution caused it.

"I would've liked to have seen the town located somewhere else, but no one wanted to see it happen," says Sparkman, who works for the town housing authority. "It should've ended in the 1960s."

The federal government has stepped in with a plan to relocate residents, a buyout program that could cost $60 million.

As of April, nearly 800 applications had been turned in by home and business owners. More than 300 offers have been made so far and of those, 272 were accepted. Only a handful were rejected.

The payouts won't make anyone rich -- a 1,200-square-foot home fetches around $60,000 -- but most residents believe this is the only ticket out of the depressed area.

The town has been whittled down to 800 people. Most businesses are long gone. The truck stop on the edge of town closed when unleaded was going for $2.79 a gallon. The school system is down to 99 kids and already axed extracurricular activities.

But there are the holdouts, perhaps as many as 30 families, who plan to stay.

"They thought they were going to live here for the rest of their lives," says Larry Roberts, a former state lawmaker and operations manager of the relocation trust.

Why would people remain?

Candie Crites tries to explain, even as the ground under her feet rumbles almost every day. A mine shaft lies just on the south side of her driveway, 15 feet from her shotgun house in Cardin, a spit away from Picher. When the tremors come, they sound like dynamite blasts and shake windows.

But she can't leave the land she's lived on for decades, where the forsythias her parents planted bloom and the best memories with her late husband were made.

"It hurts to see what's going on," Crites says, sobbing. "It's literally like tearing away pages of your life or layers of your skin."

Hoppy Ray's son, Steven, is also staying. Stubborn like his old man, the 61-year-old rattles off reasons why he thinks this place can be something again.

What about the city water being turned off? "It will turn into a rural water system."

Or living in a deserted city? "No more lonely than if you lived out in the country."

The lead pollution? "I've got four college degrees, and I grew up playing in the chat piles and swimming in the mill ponds. If I'm lead-damaged, by God, what would I have been, another Albert Einstein?"

If 67-year-old Roberta Richards had her way, she'd probably stay, too, but she's afraid of a town without law and order.

She hopes to get $70,000 for her house and is looking at a new place about 25 miles away. The hardest thing for her will be living without her daughter and grandkids as neighbors.

Sirens cut the silence. Police and fire vehicles have lined up, and it's about to begin now, the parade marking Picher's 90th -- and perhaps last -- birthday. Something like 300 people have turned out to pay last respects.

"We cry every day," moans resident Louise Blalock, waiting in her minivan for the procession to start. "It's like a death, really."

"For what it is, I'm losing my heritage," says Steven Meador, who moved out of Picher in 1986 and lives in a small town nearby.

"I feel like it's the end. That's why I'm here. This is it for me," says Norma Jean Skinner, who made the pilgrimage from California to say a proper goodbye.

Cars, pickups and motorcycles roll by. Locals on the floats toss suckers and Tootsie Rolls into the street, but many of the candies aren't scooped up because there are so few kids left here.

The parade ends at the Paul Thomas Funeral Home.

Afterward, folks gather at the elementary school cafeteria for a reception.

Honky-tonk music sets the mood, and couples get up from bowls of beans and cornbread for one final twirl around the floor.

Paul Thomas, the town's silver-haired undertaker, sits in the back, dressed in a dark suit. The 84-year-old has buried much of this town and can remember the days when Picher's streets were crowded.

"It's just fading away," Thomas says, looking straight ahead.

"It just keeps getting smaller and smaller."

"Ol' Picher is just like the rest of us, she's 90 years old and on her last legs." Orval "Hoppy" Ray longtime resident
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