The abandoned Oklahoma mining town of Picher has been described as the 'most toxic place in America'. Once home to thousands of people, Picher is now a ghost town, surrounded by mountains of hazardous waste.
Photographer and environmental activist Seph Lawless visited the town to document what happens when mankind doesn't respect nature and the environment. "This is America. Geographically and in spirit this is the heart of America," Lawless said. "The same thing that built this city would ultimately destroy it." In this gallery, we publish some of the photos from his latest book, called The Prelude: The Deadliest City in America.
Lawless describes the ghost town as being like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie. The ground in Picher is so dangerously thin that it could cave in at any moment, so driving into the town wasn't an option for Lawless.
Despite the road blocks and signs warning the public to stay out, Lawless went in on foot. "I was terrified," he said. "I kept thinking the earth could open up any minute and swallow me and no-one would ever know. At one point my foot went through the ground and I fell to the ground thinking it was going to cave in."
In 1913, major deposits of lead and zinc ore were discovered in the area, and mining began. The town that sprung up around the works was named in honour of OS Picher, the owner of the Picher Lead Company. By 1926, it had 14,252 residents – mostly miners and their families, but also shopkeepers and school teachers, etc.
The area is estimated to have produced more than $20 billion of ore. It is thought that 75% of all the bullets and bombshells expended by American troops in the first and second world wars were made from metals mined in the region.
The town fell into a gradual decline as mining activity decreased, leaving only 2,553 residents behind by 1960. Mining operations were halted in 1967, leaving behind 70 million tons of mine tailings and 36 million tons of mill sand and sludge in about 30 piles scattered in and around Picher. These mountains of crushed limestone, dolomite and silica-laden sedimentary rock sometimes rose to heights of 300 feet or more. So many tunnels had been carved beneath the town that sinkholes began to appear.
Contaminated water from some 14,000 abandoned mine shafts flowed into Tar Creek, the river that flowed through the town, turning it a dirty red, such was the concentration of heavy metals such as lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic, iron and manganese. In 1980, the US government designated the area as a Superfund site – under laws that were introduced to clean up sites contaminated by hazardous substances.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found toxic levels so high they declared Picher a hazardous waste site and bought out about 900 homeowners and businesses. The final blow to the town came on 10 May 2008, when a powerful EF4 tornado destroyed 20 blocks of homes and businesses, killing eight residents and injuring 150 others.
One resident remained in the city after the evacuation order was issued. Gary Linderman, the town's pharmacist stayed on for years, supplying medicines and supplies to residents in the surrounding area. In 2015, Seph Lawless arranged to meet the town's last resident during his visit to Picher, but unfortunately the pharmacist died days before the photographer arrived.
Lawless says that as he was wandering around the eerie ghost town he looked up and saw the largest storm cell he'd ever seen. "I said to myself: this is how it all ends." He continued to photograph the town as he made his way back to his car, with the dark storm system forming a dramatic backdrop. "I just started driving in the opposite direction to avoid the storm since it was tornado season. I was just going as fast as I could to get away from it." This same storm cell would later produce several tornadoes throughout Oklahoma and Texas that would devastate the region.