Oklahoma Sacrifice Zones

Mckinley School

Site of McKinley Elementary School in contaminated neighborhood in Ponca, City, OK.

This New York Times story from 1990  is about a sacrifice zone on the south side of Ponca City, Oklahoma. Ponca City is my dad’s home town where he was born in 1935 and lived until 1955 when he moved to Norman for his junior year of college. He lived on a part of South 8th Street that was not torn down in 1990 when it was determined that an area of about 400 homes just to the south of his boyhood home would need to be demolished and its residents compensated for their loss of homes and health owing to contamination from the Conoco refinery.

Until the age of 7 or so, I would travel quite often to Ponca City with my parents to visit my grandma who still lived there. In addition to my very fond memories of grandma’s hugs, feeding the ducks at the lake, harvesting pecans, taking family pictures at the Pioneer Woman, and swimming in the famous Wentz Pool; I also have powerful memories of the foul odor that greeted us each time upon our arrival, and I always wondered why the water tasted so funny there. I suppose you would get used to the odor and the taste of the water if you lived there, but for me as a young child with a good sense of taste and smell, there was no denying that it was not normal – something was wrong.

My dad used to like to show me his old stomping grounds in his hometown, and this included his neighborhood (half of which is now demolished) and his elementary school which also did not escape demolition as part of the sacrifice zone. All that remains of his school is the archway at the entrance as a historical marker. I visited the neighborhood when I gave a sermon at a church in Ponca this past year and took a picture of the archway as a reminder of what was there and never will be again because it became a sacrifice zone of the oil and gas industry.

The people of South Ponca City and the people of Picher, Oklahoma (home of an even worse toxic environmental catastrophe) know what it is like to live in and be forced to flee from a sacrifice zone of our extractive economy. Picher’s legacy is one of lead poisoning of their children and a town that is permanently evacuated – mountains of toxic chat piles and empty buildings are all that is left. We have a history of sacrifice zones in Oklahoma, and we cannot deny that this has been a part of our extractive industry dependent economy. What other sacrifice zones will extractive industries in Oklahoma create before we realize that long term flourishing of our human and ecological communities conflicts with ongoing contamination of our land, water, and air? Will earthquakes make Cushing the next Oklahoma sacrifice zone to add to the list? Will we stop there? What structures will be left in these areas to act as historical markers of places where people once lived?


Chat Piles in Picher, OK



One comment

  1. My home is Webb City the world’s capitol of lead and zinc from the Civil War to the discovery of ore in Pitcher/Cardin in the mid ’20s. Seems odd that differences exist between the two historic mining towns. My first professional boss was in England during WWII serving in the 8th Army Air Force. There he read a book of an English doctor who studied tiburculosis in this area. Said that flint gets sharper when chipped smaller becoming a razor blade when inhaled. There continued to cut and the scaring was the site for the contangion to grow.

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