In 2006, the EPA issued mandatory evacuations to residents of the town of Picher, Oklahoma. This winter, photographer Seph Lawless traveled to Picher to access a previously restricted area. And he brought back what look like apocalyptic visions of the future.
For decades, Picher was one of the most productive mining fields in the state, producing 50 percent of the lead and zinc used during World War I. The mining stopped in 1967, but contaminated water continued to seep out of the 14,000 abandoned mines, and millions of tons of toxic mine tailings, known as chat, remained piled up at the edge of town.
In 1980, Picher was declared a Superfund site. In 1996, it was discovered that 34 percent of the town’s children had lead poisoning. The EPA determined that contamination was more pervasive than originally thought, and the ground had suffered from subsidence due to mining so most buildings weren’t fit for habitation. As part of a 2006 initiative, the government relocated Picher’s few hundred remaining residents (a few refused to leave, including the last resident, pharmacist Gary Linderman, who died in 2015). In 2009, the state dis-incorporated the city.
The US still has hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines just like this, invisibly leaching toxic chemicals beneath the surface of our cities. The EPA is attempting to fix some of these sites—like the botched cleanup of a mine that turned a Colorado river neon orange—but there are simply too many to address. In fact, what’s happening with Flint’s drinking water is part of a bigger story about the state of industrial pollution in this country that we’ve only begun to uncover. In the future, more towns might look like Picher.
As a storm cell crept over the town—one which would generate tornadoes that devastated parts of Texas and Oklahoma—Lawless photographed Picher’s empty streets and quickly vacated homes. This is what he saw.
Images and captions provided by the photographer.