The Environmental Protection Agency calls it the most toxic place in America, but six determined residents still call Picher home. The city was once the most productive lead and zinc mining area in the world, but today it’s full of abandoned buildings and enormous piles of mine waste. In 1967, contaminated water from the mines turned the local creek red, the giant chat piles were found to be laced with lead, and Picher’s cancer levels skyrocketed. The area was declared the Tar Creek Superfund site in 1981, but most residents didn’t leave until 2006 when it was discovered that the town was in imminent danger of collapsing into the mines. Picher was declared too toxic to clean up, and a federal buyout program began paying residents to leave. In 2008, the city was further destroyed by a tornado.
Picher’s post office, city hall and high school closed in 2009, and the city ceased operations as a municipality on Sept. 1, 2009. In January 2011, Picher’s remaining commercial structures were demolished, with the exception of the Old Miner’s Pharmacy. Its owner, Gary Linderman, refuses to leave his home, and his business survives only because he serves customers in surrounding areas, many who have respiratory problems possibly linked to the toxic environment.