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An older man in a baseball cap and sunglasses stands in front of a wooded area and an old sign on a poll that reads U.S. property, no
"Once the mining companies pulled out, the acid water just completely flooded the mines. Eventually the acid water sprung from the ground and flowed into the creek, staining it burnt red."
—Orval 'Hoppy' Ray,
Picher resident

Located in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, the town of Picher was once home to the world’s richest lead and zinc mining field. But since the area was declared a Superfund site in 1981, Picher’s residents have been forced to choose between preserving their image of the American dream and preserving their health. THE CREEK RUNS RED journeys into the heart of a sharply divided community to reveal an array of human reactions to an environmental disaster.

After decades of mining, towering piles of mine waste covered 25,000 acres, devastating Quapaw tribal lands and local economies. Acid mine water burned nearby Tar Creek and stained it red. Despite these environmental hazards, many people in Picher desperately wished to stay and revitalize their town.

But when an alarmingly high percentage of local children were found to have toxic levels of lead in their blood, a committee was quickly formed to relocate the town. Property values plummeted and the EPA arrived to replace tainted soil in yards. Some residents resented what they saw as an invasive presence by the federal government in one of the state’s poorest counties. Meanwhile, others wondered if the environment might also be to blame for high rates of cancer and other diseases.

THE CREEK RUNS RED is an emotionally stirring and intimate portrait of a small town struggling to determine its future in light of its past.


The filmmakers provided updates in October 2007 on the status of Picher and the people in the film.

In June 2006, after studies found most churches, homes and the school were in serious danger of caving in, a federal buyout was offered to any Picher residents who wanted to leave. A majority of the residents accepted the offer and have left or are in the process of leaving. After a February 2007 local election, it was decided that the school would stay open for another year, although enrollment is down. The senior class enrollment is at eight students, down from 26 last year. And some of those students will be leaving during this school year. Many people are taking the buyout not because they are anxious to get out, but because they realize this will be the fairest price they will ever be able to get.

Of the characters in the film, Hoppy Ray is most likely to stay, although it's anticipated city utilities will no longer be available within a couple years' time. Bill Lake and his family chose to move after a long fight to stay. However, they will still live very near the Superfund site. Betty Cole and her family have all moved or are in the process of moving.

Additionally, the Quapaw Tribe and other local advocacy groups are still actively working with the federal and state governments to remediate their lands. This is where the real tragedy lies—a tribe that has already been once removed from its ancestral homelands is left with an immense amount of waste on the land they were relocated to. Much of the efforts to date were aimed at mitigating the threat to human health, especially the children. Now after the relocation of the Picher/Cardin communities, the Quapaw Tribe, the state and the nation will be left to address a monumental waste site that has been continually expanding through the motion of the wind, rivers and aquifers.

Related Links and Resources

The Creek Runs Red
The filmmakers’ site.

L.E.A.D. Agency
The Local Environmental Action Demanded Agency focuses on environmental hazards in Northeast Oklahoma.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
Learn more about childhood lead poisoning.

Superfund Site Progress Profile: Tar Creek
Follow the progress of clean-up at this Superfund site.

Picher Mining District Photo Gallery
Photos of chat piles and other sites near Picher.

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