The Creek Runs Red is a documentary about the former mining town of Picher, Oklahoma, which the Environmental Protection Agency now regards as the most toxic place in America.
Located on the traditional lands of the Quapaw People, the mining town of Picher was once a hub for the world’s richest source of zinc and lead (a great deal of which went to making bullets for WW1 and WW2).
“During its boom, Picher’s population peaked at 20,000. Saloons and movie parlors lined the streets,” notes the Associated Press.
It truly was an American Dream. That is, despite the nightmarish towers of mine waste (“chat piles”) that were collecting in the distance.
Today, with a population under a thousand, Picher can no longer be called a mining town — but not because there have been no active mines for over thirty years, but rather because the nightmare usurped the dream when they did finally close. Today the EPA calls Picher the most toxic place in America.
A synopsis of the film (pdf) points out that towering hills of waste now cover “25-thousand acres, devastating Quapaw tribal lands, as well as local economies.” On top of that,
When the mining stopped in the early 1970s, rusty-red acid mine water began to slowly fill the shafts and cavities beneath the surface until finally spilling over. Springs flowed from the ground and through the fields, burning the legs of the cattle. Eventually the water reached Tar Creek, killing the fish and staining it burnt red.
For most people of Picher, the chat piles and the environmental hazards have become part of life, while the immediacy of work, Friday night football, and Sunday church takes precedence. The strange landscape and history of the place are a source of pride and nostalgia. The isolation of this small corner of America has preserved a sense of rural values and community.
Perhaps, because of this, some people desperately wish to stay and to revitalize their town, despite the apparent dangers and lack of opportunity. However, others feel that the toxic environment has already taken its toll on their families and that we might be just beginning to understand the long- term impacts. Scientists at The Center for Disease Control still consider lead exposure the number one threat to children’s health in the U.S.
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