Oklahoma town gets demolished over lead contamination

KANSAS CITY, Missouri Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:10pm EST

A sign on the youth soccer field in Picher, Oklahoma April 18, 2006. For 23 years now, the 1,500-plus residents of this historic mining community in northeast Oklahoma have known they were in trouble, trapped by growing evidence that waste from mining operations the area once thrived on was poisoning the air, the water and the land. To match feature Life Oklahoma. REUTERS/Carey Gillam

A sign on the youth soccer field in Picher, Oklahoma April 18, 2006. For 23 years now, the 1,500-plus residents of this historic mining community in northeast Oklahoma have known they were in trouble, trapped by growing evidence that waste from mining operations the area once thrived on was poisoning the air, the water and the land. To match feature Life Oklahoma.

Credit: Reuters/Carey Gillam

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KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Most of the residents left, the school closed, the city government disbanded and starting this week, nearly every commercial building in Picher, Oklahoma, will be demolished.

It makes for a kind of lonely feeling for the owner of the last-remaining open business in Picher, which has been vacated over the years because of lead contamination.

"It's not time for me to leave yet," said Gary Linderman, owner of Old Miner's Pharmacy in what is left of central Picher, located in the northeast corner of the state.

"I have an obligation to people. We are all creatures of habit and closing might throw them off."

In addition to providing prescriptions, the pharmacy is the only place left in town to buy snack food, beverages, over-the-counter medicine and other necessities.

Linderman declined a buyout from the federal government, which declared Picher a Superfund site in 1981 and has bought out about 900 homeowners and businesses. Crews demolished a funeral home, restaurant, thrift shop, apartment building and other structures this week, with more to come.

Besides lead contamination, Picher has suffered in recent years from sinkholes that threaten to swallow the community into old mines below. Three years ago, a tornado destroyed about 150 homes, chasing more people away.

Picher's population has shrunk from 1,640 in 2000 to only a handful of residents today. The school district and city government dissolved in 2009 and the post office closed.

The town had more than 14,000 residents in the 1920s.

Because of historic significance, a church, mining museum, auction house and a building where mining equipment was sold will remain standing, though they are abandoned. Linderman's building will be surrounded by vacant lots in what used to be downtown, but he doesn't seem to mind.

"I'm a farm boy," he said. "I'm used to the wide open spaces."

(Writing by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski)

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