TAR CREEK Picher, Oklahoma POLLUTANTS: lead, zinc, cadmium YEAR LISTED: 1983 Dunes of waste rock from long-shuttered lead and zinc mines rise above Ethel and Fifth Streets in a town that no longer exists. Before this place became a Superfund site, children played on the dunes, and the wind blew toxic dust into homes. Water flowing through the mines still pollutes Tar Creek. But Picher’s residents are now gone, thanks to federal buyouts. Some 800 houses were razed; the town was dissolved last year.
TAR CREEK Picher, Oklahoma POLLUTANTS: lead, zinc, cadmium YEAR LISTED: 1983 Dunes of waste rock from long-shuttered lead and zinc mines rise above Ethel and Fifth Streets in a town that no longer exists. Before this place became a Superfund site, children played on the dunes, and the wind blew toxic dust into homes. Water flowing through the mines still pollutes Tar Creek. But Picher’s residents are now gone, thanks to federal buyouts. Some 800 houses were razed; the town was dissolved last year.

Wasteland

No one talks much about toxic Superfund sites anymore. But 49 million Americans live close to one.

For most of his adult life Jun Apostol has lived, willingly, in the shadow of a mountain of waste. An accountant who’s now retired, he planted his family in 1978 in a modest new house in Montebello, an industrial cum bedroom community just east of Los Angeles. Behind the house, in neighboring Monterey Park, sat an active landfill—but don’t worry, the developer said. Soon it would close and become a park or maybe even a golf course.

The greens never came. It turned out that the landfill, a former gravel pit that had welcomed so much ordinary trash it had filled to ground level and then kept on rising, had also accepted some 300 million gallons of liquid industrial waste—and it hadn’t been selective. Was your waste laced with arsenic, 1,4-dioxane, or mercury? No problem. The nodding pump jacks nearby, left from the oil boom, wouldn’t care. Some of the waste might have come from drilling those oil wells.

Los Angeles had buried the hazardous waste, but it was far from gone. A few years after Apostol’s development was built, his neighbors began complaining of nausea. Gas had intruded into six homes. Property values plummeted. In 1986 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency marched in and listed the landfill as a Superfund site, part of its new program to contain the nation’s hazardous waste crisis.

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