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America's Most Toxic Town

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo


Thirty years after the Environmental Protection Agency declared Picher, Oklahoma the most hazardous Superfund site in America, the federal government is on the verge of erasing the town from the map. Lead mining here produced many of the bullets used by American soldiers in World Wars I and II. Yet mining tunnels also left much of this Midwestern town structurally unsound, vulnerable to cave-ins. Above ground, giant piles of chat mine tailings laced with zinc and lead blew toxic dust into the air. Heavy metals seeped into the groundwater. By 1996, one in three children here had elevated lead levels, and federal and state officials were forced to take drastic action. They turned off the town’s water supply and closed its schools; they relocated its residents and bulldozed most its of buildings. All that remains today are mountains of chat, rising over the ruins of what may be America’s newest ghost town.'