by Carey Gillam
PICHER, Okla., April 24 (Reuters) - The death of their small town is not coming easily for the people of Picher, Oklahoma. But it is coming.
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.
They have known about the lead contamination, the learning disabilities suffered by area children, the declining property values, and the cavernous holes found around the area, including one dubbed by locals as "hell's half-acre."
They have known their community was considered one of America's worst environmental disasters and have held tight to hopes that federal and state efforts could clean up the area and get rid of the dozens of 50-foot-tall (15-metre-tall) piles of lead and zinc mining waste known as "chat."
But hope died on Jan. 31 when the U.S. Corps of Engineers invited the townsfolk to a school auditorium and told them that a study of crumbling underground mine shafts showed entire swaths of their community could literally cave in at any time.
"It was the final blow that devastated our entire community," said Picher Mayor Sam Freeman, who once worked in the mines just as his father did before him. "They can't tell you if it will fall in tonight or in 500 years. But it doesn't matter. There is no future here now."
In the weeks since that report, playgrounds have been closed for fear the ground will give way. School sporting events have been canceled because rival teams won't travel into Picher on roads declared unstable. The youth soccer field carries a sign warning players of a "high risk of subsidence."
And a third of the district's school teachers have resigned, leaving for towns that have a future.
"People are just frightened," said 66-year-old Rayma Grimes, a life-long resident and operator of the area nursing home. "There are people out there who think they could be driving down the road and just fall in."
In all, the study found that 286 locations in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, were vulnerable to collapse. Most are in Picher, with a handful also found in the neighboring communities of Cardin and Hockerville. All told, 194 homes and businesses, 10 churches, and four parks are considered in danger. Sixty-seven streets were listed as at risk for cave-in.
The safety concerns cited in the report have spurred federal and state agencies to try to put together $20 million to $30 million to buy and bulldoze affected homes and businesses in and around Picher.
A buyout plan is being drafted by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate's Environmental and Public Works Committee, and is expected to be announced in the next few weeks.
But the effort is complicated by several factors -- where to get the money; how much should be paid for homes and businesses that are virtually worthless but represent decades of retirement savings for many townspeople; and how to reconcile the needs of those who do not want to leave with those who do.
"The primary concern is the safety of the general population of that area," said Danny Finnerty, special assistant to Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican. "Folks that live in the area would like a decision today. We are working as quickly and as expeditiously as possible."
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is also requesting federal money to relocate the people of Treece, Kansas, which lies just blocks across the border from Picher.
TOWN TORN APART
The extent of the environmental pollution in northeast Oklahoma has been well documented since at least 1983 when 40 square miles were designated as the Tar Creek Superfund site -- named for a local stream polluted by mine waste -- and allocated federal clean-up dollars.
Mining was the economic mainstay of the region from 1904 to the early 1970s and helped push Picher's population to more than 15,000.
After the mines closed, the mountainous piles of chat remained, covering more than 1,750 acres with more than 52 million tons of waste. State environmental officials have used some of the chat to pave roads and buried some. But the waste pilings, combined with water and soil contaminated with iron, sulfate, zinc, and lead have largely overwhelmed clean-up efforts.
Last year, the state offered families with young children a buyout, spurred by fears that elevated blood lead levels were harming the children. About 180 families accepted the deal.
"I don't think it is safe in Picher," said Teresa Dixon who took the buyout and moved with her young son about 10 miles (15 km) south to Miami, Oklahoma.
That buyout nearly brought Picher to its knees, cutting into its tax base and its ability to pay for services for other residents. Now, city officials say, if all of the homes and businesses listed as at risk are bought out, the town will not have enough economic activity to support those who remain.
Townspeople are divided on the issue. Some say the threats of cave-ins are inflated and a buyout would needlessly kill a community rich in American heritage.
Others, like 58-year-old Susie Stone, owner of local gift shop, pray for a buyout.
"I have lost all my business traffic. We're operating on our savings," Stone said. This used to be a thriving little town. Now no one wants to be here."
Meanwhile, city leaders are accusing each other of corruption and mismanagement, locals are lambasting state officials for spending money on studies and road paving instead of relocations, and friends and families fret over uncertain futures.
"It hurts my heart," said Freeman, the mayor. "I don't want to move, but it's just not good to live here."