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Filmmaker shows the heartbreak and devastation of a Superfund site

July 30, 2011
by Paul Miller

In a sense, Matt Myers (M.F.A. '05), has prepared most of his life to make a documentary film on one of the worst environmental disasters in the United States.

Mountains of mining waste, called chat, near Picher-Cardin High School in Picher, Oklahoma.Growing up in a toxic land

Matt Myers grew up close to the Tar Creek Superfund site near the town of Picher in northeast Oklahoma, once one of the largest lead and zinc mines in the world and now home to more than 40 square miles of toxic lead residue, acid mine water leaching into waterways, and sinkholes that swallow whole neighborhoods.

A master’s in creative writing from CSU, though, kicked Myers’ nascent filmmaking career into gear. The result is Tar Creek, a film that shows how residents are still fighting for decontamination, environmental justice, and buyout and relocation of their homes to safer ground. Tar Creek reveals that America’s Superfund sites aren’t just environmental wastelands; they’re community tragedies, too.

“My academic experience helped me understand and be able to distill a complex story to fit in limited space,” Myers says. “Fiction, non-fiction, and film are all story-based, and knowing how to tell a story is crucial, particularly with a documentary that has a message.”

Human voices and issues

English Professor John Calderazzo, who had Myers in his nonfiction workshop, watched Myers become deeply involved in the project as writer, director, and producer.

“Tar Creek is amazingly clear and moving, full of many human voices and important issues of environmental justice and the interconnected nature of ecology and human lives,” Calderazzo says. “It highlights the history and ongoing drama of how so many people have been impacted by one of worst EPA Superfund sites in the United States. Matt has done an amazing job with this story.” 

Sludge pond, Commerce, OK.Picher, which sits amid mountains of toxic mining waste called chat, had a population of more than 14,000 in the 1920s but now has only a handful of residents. The town was declared a hazardous waste site in 1981; the school district and city government dissolved in 2009 and the post office closed. Over the decades, the federal government bought out hundreds of homeowners and businesses and demolished most of the town structures.

Telling the story

Myers remembers a moment in 1998 that convinced him to tell the story. He was surveying roads in Picher when he came across a road that stopped at a sinkhole.

“I parked in the middle of the road (and saw) gray mountains of crushed ore stretching skyward, a hungry, brown sinkhole crawling toward my front bumper. I was standing on ground zero of the biggest environmental disaster in the country, 25 miles from my front porch. And I had never heard about it. This is where the story began for me.

“In late 2006, when the federal government finally declared this place unfit for people, I knew the story was moving away, box by box, and a thunderbolt struck for me to get moving or this story would be gone for good.”