Toxic towns you still can’t live in

Posted: October 3, 2019 in Did you know?

toxic_1These abandoned communities are seriously hazardous
Dangerously unfit for human habitation, a number of settlements around the world remain strictly off-limits, ranging from once-thriving cities contaminated with radiation to desolate villages riddled with asbestos, anthrax and explosives. Grab your hazmat suit and let’s take a tour of 10 of the world’s most toxic towns.

Gilman, Colorado, USA
Perched on a steep cliff above Eagle River in Eagle County, Colorado, the ghost town of Gilman was established in 1886 during the Colorado Silver Boom and had a population of several hundred by the early 20th century. The nearby Eagle Mine was the state’s leading producer of silver for decades, but by the early 1930s the mainstay of the town’s economy was zinc and lead mining.

The population of the town, which had a post office, grocery store and even a bowling alley, remained at several hundred up until 1977 when the main mine ceased operations. The town was eventually abandoned in 1984 by order of the Environmental Protection Agency, which detected dangerous levels of contaminants in soil and groundwater.

Parts of Gilman remain toxic to this day, including the old mine. It has noxious levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and zinc. A proposal to fast-track clean-up operations and transform the site into a ski resort fell through in 2009. The town, which is privately owned and sprawls over 235 acres, has been allowed to fall into rack and ruin.

The majority of Gilman’s structures, many of which have historical value, have been vandalized, so much so that almost every window in the town has been broken. Though strictly off-limits to the general public, Gilman has become a haven for explorers and photographers, as well as graffiti artists and vandals.

Pripyat, Kiev Oblast, Ukraine
Pripyat in modern-day Ukraine was founded in 1970 to house the workers of the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant along with their families. Declared a city in 1979, Pripyat had a population of 47,500 according to a 1985 census, and all the trappings of a major urban area, including 160 apartment blocks, 25 stores and malls, five secondary schools, a hospital, cinema and more.

Then the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred at the plant on 26 April 1986, when Reactor 4 exploded, spewing clouds of toxic fallout over the city and across large swathes of Europe. Following the cataclysmic accident, it took 36 hours to evacuate Pripyat’s entire population, exposing many residents to dangerous levels of radiation. Most personal belongings were left behind and remain in the city to this day.

An exclusion zone was established in the vicinity and is currently still in place, though it has expanded to cover 1,000 square miles. Frozen in time, Pripyat is now one of the world’s most chilling ghost towns. According to a 2016 study by Greenpeace, the immediate area around the plant won’t be fit for human habitation for a staggering 3,000 years.

Since the evacuation, the former city has become a ‘dark tourism’ magnet – tourists can visit as long as they don’t hang around – as well as a haven for wildlife. Nature is reclaiming the crumbling concrete buildings, with animals such as wolves, bears, foxes and deer spotted roaming Pripyat’s once-busy streets.

Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA
Late 1960s, the picture-perfect Pennsylvania coal mining town of Centralia hides a dark secret. In mysterious circumstances on 27 May 1962, the town’s landfill, which was sitting atop an old strip mine, was set alight. The blaze soon spread to the deeper coal mines beneath the town and the inferno quickly spiraled out of control.

Locals only became aware of the full extent of the blaze in 1979 and it wasn’t until 1981 when a resident fell into a sinkhole that the fire hit the headlines. By this time, smoke and poisonous gases were billowing from fissures that had opened up in the ground and residents had begun falling ill.

Realizing the subterranean fire was out of control and almost impossible to quell, Congress allocated millions of dollars for relocation efforts in 1983. By 1990, the majority of the town’s householders had been bought out, reducing the population from well over 1,000 to just 63. More than 500 properties were razed to the ground. In 2006, only a few homes remained, including this unstable row house.

Famous for all the wrong reasons, the creepy abandoned town provided the inspiration for survival horror video game Silent Hill. These days just a handful of structures and fewer than a dozen stubborn residents remain in the condemned town, which is out of bounds to newcomers. Experts believe the hellish fire could burn for at least another 100 years.

Wittenoom, Pilbara, Australia
The company town of Wittenoom in Western Australia’s Pilbara region had a population of around 20,000 in the early 1960s, when the bustling spot was home to a cinema, two schools and a swish hotel, which is pictured here. The town owed its existence to a nearby blue asbestos mine that employed most of the adult residents.

As health concerns surrounding asbestos grew, the mine was shut down in 1966, but the closure came too late for many of the town’s residents. To date, more than 2,000 people have died from asbestos-related diseases, according to the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia, while the mine’s ex-workers are at risk of dying prematurely from asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma.

Despite its deadly terrain, the town’s closure wasn’t announced until the late 1970s, when the State Government started buying up and demolishing properties. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the bulk of the town’s structures were pulled down, and the hotel was finally bulldozed in 1996.

Regarded as the most contaminated site in the southern hemisphere, Wittenoom, which has been dubbed ‘Australia’s Chernobyl’, was wiped off official maps and disconnected from the power grid in 2007. Three die-hard permanent residents still live in the former town, but the Western Australian government introduced a bill in March that will allow for the compulsory purchase of their properties, forcing them out for good.

Picher, Oklahoma, USA
The Tri-State Mining District town of Picher was established in the early 20th century around the eponymous lead and zinc mine and was incorporated in 1918. A bustling hive of activity, the town’s thriving population peaked at 14,252 in 1926. South Connell Avenue, Picher’s main drag, is pictured here in the 1920s.

Mining operations declined in the latter half of the 20th century and halted in 1967. In 1972, contaminated water began to seep from the mines and efforts were made to decontaminate the town, but to little avail. By 2006, the state had begun relocating residents and buying out homes and businesses.

Adding to Picher’s woes and sealing its fate, an F4 tornado hit the town in May 2008. The twister claimed the lives of eight people and leveled scores of buildings, while causing irreparable damage to countless others. Following the tornado, the majority of residents vacated the town for good.

By 2013, a large proportion of the condemned town’s buildings had been demolished, while suspected arson attacks in 2015 and 2017 gutted Picher’s mining museum and church. Despite the contamination, Gary Linderman, the owner of the town’s Ole Miner Pharmacy, vowed to stay there until the bitter end. Picher’s last official resident, he died in June 2015 and the town’s population was subsequently recorded at zero.

Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan
Located downwind from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Namie was evacuated and declared a no-go zone after a devastating earthquake and tsunami ravaged the surrounding region on 11 March 2011, causing three catastrophic meltdowns at the plant.

Before the disaster, Namie had a population of over 20,000. Located within the 12-mile exclusion zone, the town remained completely out of bounds and eerily silent until April 2012, when the authorities divided it into three zones based on their levels of radioactive contamination.

Former residents were allowed to visit Zone A, located closest to the coast, but weren’t permitted to stay overnight. They could visit Zone B for very brief periods, but Zone C, the most contaminated of the lot, remained closed off, with access strictly forbidden.

As clean-up operations have progressed, Zones A and B were declared safe in April 2017 and former residents were allowed to return, but many have chosen to stay away. Access to Zone C, on the other hand, is still completely prohibited and is expected to stay that way until at least 2023.

New Idria, California, USA
New Idria in northern California’s Diablo Mountain Range was founded in 1854 to house workers who toiled away in the adjacent mercury mine, which went on to become one of America’s chief producers of the metal. By the mid-20th century, the town was a bustling community and had a number of shops, a post office, a school and a church.

The mine closed down in 1972 leading to a mass exodus of workers and their families. Its livelihood stripped away, New Idria fast became a deserted ghost town. Concerns over contamination in the area began building in the 1990s and since then, worrying levels of mercury and other toxic metals have been detected in the town and downstream of the mine.

In 2010, a fire ripped through buildings on the settlement’s north side and two years later the south side of the town was fenced off. Despite this, several former residents were known to visit periodically during this time, including the last mining supervisor Mark Ward, who would travel to the site with his wife and son to repair damaged structures.

Clean-up operations were conducted in 2012 and 2015 but the site remains toxic and uninhabitable. In addition to mercury and heavy metal contaminants, a large tract of land south of New Idria has been deemed an Asbestos Hazard Area. This is one place in sunny California you definitely want to steer clear of.

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