From the 1920's until the 1950's, Picher was at the center of the lead and zinc mining capital of the world -- the intersection of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. By 1983, however, Picher was identified as the epicenter of one of the most toxic areas in America due to mine waste that had contaminated the water. Studies showed that about one-third of the children in Picher had elevated levels of lead in their blood, a condition that can cause cognitive and learning disabilities. A local school board member recalls generations of young people in Picher who struggled to learn.
There was no EPA during Picher's mining heyday. No agency to test the drinking water or otherwise ensure that mining and industrial operations would be conducted without harming the health of residents. It was an era that gave us places like Love Canal, New York (the Niagra Falls neighborhood where 800 families had to be relocated because of toxic chemicals buried in the ground), and Times Beach, Missouri (another town that no longer exists because of life-threatening dioxin levels in the drinking water), and Woburn, Massachusetts (another high profile incident of water contamination and the subject of the book and movie, A Civil Action). It was an era when babies of working class families were poisoned in blissful ignorance.
Do we really want to return to an era when the lives of working class people and their children will be destroyed by untested and unregulated mining and industrial practices? As we consider the economic benefits and costs of using hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") to recover more natural gas from shale formations, do we really want to move forward without a government agency investigating the potential environmental and human harms? Do we want to take the risk of creating new Pichers, and Love Canals, and Times Beaches, and Woburns?
Or do we want to get it right this time?