The Tragedy of Treece and Picher | #ProEarth

The Devastation of Mining in Two Midwestern Towns and How Scientific Advances Can Eliminate America’s Toxic Ghost Towns

A.D. Argyle
5 min readJul 14, 2019
2019. Toby Wong. Unsplash.

IT IS 1913, and it’s business as usual for a small company drilling out in the vast emptiness of land between Kansas and Oklahoma when they discover a surprise in the wheat-covered landscape — a cache of lead and zinc. Eager to stake their claim, an independent mining company quickly buys up the land, bringing with them thousands of employees as well as their families. This surge of life prompts the new landowners to split the acreage. They form the cities of Treece, Kansas, and Picher, Oklahoma, the latter of which is eventually made famous for providing most of the raw material used to make ammunition in both World Wars. However, both cities would come to darken headlines across the country for exposing the ugly realities of mining.


Decades passed and the citizens were faced with the disturbing reality of living near a mine. Piles of gritty, chalky, white sand-like particulates accumulated along the sides of roads, resembling snowbanks. This substance, known as ‘chat’, was so abundant that people began using it to pave their driveways, even going so far as to use it as filler for their children’s sandboxes. It was common for the young to be seen running up the enormous piles of chat to slide down the hill on sleds.

Chat piles. 2019. Kansas State University.

The chat is a byproduct of mining and unbeknownst to the citizens of Picher and Treece, it is extremely toxic. Later testing found that 34% of children in Picher were found to have elevated levels of lead in their systems, which led to permanent brain damage and disabilities.


As mining efforts lessened in the area, many mines collapsed, creating incredibly large sinkholes, which would swallow up cars and even entire homes. Tar Creek, which runs through the town, is a sickening shade of orange from the high levels of toxic heavy metals that continue to contaminate the water, despite clean-up efforts.

The concentration of heavy metals in Tar Creek gives the waterway its bright orange hue. 2019. Flickr.

It was only until 2006 that the Army Corps of Engineering declared the land of Picher significantly unstable and soon, with government buyouts, most of the citizens packed up and moved away. A tornado in 2008 pushed out even more residents. Only 10 residents still reside in the town today and a single pharmacy acts as the only business for miles.

The EPA operates differently in Kansas, so Treece citizens were forced to wait until 2010 to receive government buyouts that would ensure they could live a stable life away from the old mining town.

The devastating effects of mining in Picher stole the residents’ livelihoods and their economic place in the States. 2019. Sagaya Abdulhafee. Unsplash.

The efforts to clean up Picher has cost the American government over $300 million and they expect to pay another $2 million before the next 20 years is up. The affected area has grown to more than 2,500 square miles, spanning dozens of towns that are still waiting for the clean-up to finish at the source before their own towns are able to receive the same treatments.


Mining is an invaluable process that has allowed researchers and scientists to propel mankind into the 21st century with more ease than previous eras, but mining requires an immense amount of land and resources. Practices like fracking can lead to dangerous chemical spills which degrade the surrounding landscape. These lands, diminished in nutrients and viable soil, must be abandoned.

2019. Dan Gold. Unsplash.

In an effort to lessen the degradation caused by mining, MIT has several suggestions, including, “shutting down illegal and unregulated mines,” (MIT, 2016). A few more important aspects of MIT’s projections, it would be wise to reevaluate chemical level cut-offs, ensuring that present-day mining operations adhere to updated policies, as well as utilizing new machinery that includes flue machines to extract larger amounts of air pollutants, like CO2, from the air leaving the facility and having the mining facility use its own power resources. The freshwater used in the initial running of the mine can be recycled and the mine tailings, ore waste from mines, can be made into a layered sludge that can then be separated from the water. This filtered water will eventually be released back into Tar Creek and other important waterways.

These techniques and changes have been applied in China and other locations that have experienced similar catastrophes born from poor mining practices. They’ve been met with success and it would certainly benefit American ghost towns like Picher and Treece to undertake some of these practices.

Over 100 years have passed since the discovery of the Picher-Treece mines, it is devastating to acknowledge that its effects are still seen today, but it must be done. Speaking out about the dangers of mining and the alternatives can alleviate the terror and emotional pain that these residents have endured, ensuring that no one else will be forced to face a similar fate.

2019. Jeremy Wong. Unsplash.

Works Cited |

MIT. 2016. Environmentally Sensitive “Green” Mining. Mission 2016. Retrieved from

Shetler, S. 2019. What’s It Like Visiting A Ghost Town Full Of Toxic Waste? Welcome To Picher, Oklahoma…” Quirky Travel Guy. Retrieved from

Shepherd, D. 2014. Last Residents of Picher, Oklahoma Won’t Give Up the Ghost (Town). ABC News, Investigations. Retrieved from



A.D. Argyle

Ashleigh is a creator from the States that explores social issues and interests.