“Welcome to Armageddon, USA”

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The Story

“Welcome to Armageddon, USA”
by Ben Paynter
Wired, August 30, 2010

The Pitch

[Paynter notes that the information in this pitch letter has not been verified, and some information changed substantially in the reporting of the story.]

The Toxic Pioneers:

Picher, Oklahoma, is what the rest of the world might look when the apocalypse hits. The population of the mining boom town once peaked at 20,000 as settlers harvested lead and zinc to make bullets for WWI and WWII. After the mines closed in 1970s, though, things turned catastrophic. Sink holes swallowed houses. Undermined caverns filled with water and began leaking toxic sludge into nearby rivers where kids went swimming. The plains outpost now resembles a wasted highland; huge piles of chat– leftover dirt and metal shale– frame the nearly abandoned downtown like mountains with toxic clouds of dust. Picher was declared a Superfund in the mid-2000s and residents were offered buyouts. With that, the city joined a small but inexorably growing new class of city—those too contaminated to be inhabitable ever again.

Except that some people refused to move. The EPA says that “about 10 households” have dug in deeper, either because there were unhappy with their relocation offer or frustrated by the idea of starting all over again. Meanwhile, the town continues to deteriorate: A tornado demolishing many of the remaining businesses in 2008 and there was no one left to clean up. Some utilities have been shut off and the police force disbanded. So the remaining holdouts have become an ever-more self-reliant colony facing a plight we might have to deal with one day. Urbanization has pushed more and more people from rural farmlands to bigger cities with little thought to how we might actually survive when things inevitably become fatally over-polluted. Picher is the first test case.

Picher’s toxic pioneers have ditched many modern trappings — cell phones, the Internet, home security systems— to fish (they gut contaminated organs) and figure out how to recycle or repair just about anything. They forego luxuries; the annual household income is $15,000.
Fittingly, some of the most industrious are local Quapaw Indians. The Quapaw tribe has
developed air and water monitoring systems and is taking over some city services. They recently re-purposed the once-quarantined chat piles to be certified as a thickening agent in asphalt and are selling it in bulk to paving companies.

Picher’s struggles were written about briefly more than a decade ago in the New York Times and shown in Creek Runs Red, a PBS documentary in the mid-2000s. The town pharmacist, Gary Linderman was also mentioned in People in 2007 for promising to stay until everyone had struck a relocation deal. Since realizing that not everyone was bailing, Linderman’s only strengthened his resolve. “I’m going to be staying around,” he says, noting that his store has become a Mecca for settlers throughout the wasteland. “I need to take care of my people first.” I have full cooperation from the EPA, the Quapaw Tribe, and Linderman, who promises to introduce me to more people around town to explore what we all might learn about surviving and reclaiming the sort of Mad Max landscape that will most likely typify the end of western civilization.

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