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America's 10 worst man-made environmental disasters

By: Laura Moss on June 14, 2010, 12:50 p.m.
Chat piles in Picher, Oklahoma, after tornado.

Photo: Brandi Simons/Getty Images

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Picher lead contamination

Picher, Okla., is a modern ghost town, and the EPA calls it the most toxic place in America. At one time, Picher was one of the most productive lead and zinc mining areas in the world, but today, the once-bustling town is full of abandoned homes, empty storefronts and enormous piles of lead-laced mine waste.

In 1967 mining ceased — contaminated water from the mines had turned the local creek red, and sinkholes were opening up in the mountains of mining waste. Picher’s giant chat piles — often used for climbing, sledding and picnicking — were found to be laced with lead. High levels of lead were found in blood and tissue of residents, cancer levels skyrocketed, and three quarters of the Picher’s elementary students were reading below grade level.

The area was declared the Tar Creek Superfund site in 1981, but most of the residents didn’t leave until 2006 when studies found that most of the town was in imminent danger of collapsing into the mines. The town — home to 14,000 abandoned mine shafts, 70 million tons of mine tailings and 36 million tons of mill sand and sludge — was deemed too toxic to clean up, and a federal buyout program paid people to leave. The city’s post office closed in July 2009, and the city ceased operations as a municipality on Sept. 1, 2009.