Concerned experts ‘chat’ about local town’s lead problems

Melissa Dunson

Chat piles, not children, populate the abandoned playgrounds of Picher, Okla.

In a lecture on April 26 at the University Java coffee shop, three different experts on the situation focused on three different aspects of the ongoing lead contamination problem in Picher.

The area in Oklahoma was aggressively mined from 1819 to 1970. The resulting 40 acres or 165 million tons of chat are leaching dangerous amounts of lead into the surrounding soil and air.

It would require 15 years of Environmental Protection Agency officials working three shifts per day, seven days per week to remove one chat pile.

“Whatever we do with the chat, it will take a long, long time,” said John Sparkman, spokesperson for the Tar Creek Basin Steering Committee.

Mike Fletcher, director of the environmental health program at Missouri Southern, spoke on the geology of Picher and the history of the mining town.

Fletcher suggested a possible solution was to “tie up” the chat and the lead in asphalt or cement and use it as a sub-base or sub-grade for major highways. This would keep the chat from being exposed to the elements and prevent the toxic minerals from seeping out.

“It appears it would be better to tie it up rather than leave it,” Fletcher said. “I think there needs to be a lot more study done on it.”

Paul Barton, Seneca-Cayuga tribal member, works in the tribe’s environmental department and offered the Native American tribes’ viewpoint on the issue. All eight of the local Native American tribes are working together to research solutions to the toxic minerals all around them.

Barton said the lead seeps into the water supply and is taken up into the plant materials the tribe members use to make ethnic crafts.

“When you’re working with these crafts, you’re putting it in your mouth a lot,” Barton said.

The EPA spent years replacing the soil in Picher lawns at the cost of $71,000 per lawn, only to have the yards recontaminated every time the wind blows toxic dust off of the chat piles.

“It’s a successful failure,” Sparkman said. “It’s just not fixable, unless you want to pour billions of dollars into it.”