Welcome to Their Mines, Our Stories: Work, Environment and Justice in ASARCO-Impacted Communities. We are faculty members at The Evergreen State College. Lin Nelson teaches Environmental Health and Community Studies, and Anne Fischel teaches Media and Community Studies. We are collaborating on a project to research and document the experiences of several communities that have had prolonged relationships with ASARCO, the American Smelting and Refining Company.
Who is ASARCO?
Since its beginnings in 1889 ASARCO has been one of the nation’s leading copper producers. At one time ASARCO had mines, smelters and refineries in 21 states, as well as mines and smelters in Australia, Mexico, Chile, the Congo and the Philippines. In the 1970′s and 1980′s, ASARCO struggled with public officials and regulatory agencies over its emissions and their potential damage to the health of workers and communities. Twenty U.S. sites became Superfund sites.
In 1998 ASARCO was purchased by its former subsidiary, the Mexican copper producer, Grupo Mexico. In 2005 ASARCO filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing environmental liabilities as a primary cause. Under the terms of the bankruptcy ASARCO continued to operate its existing Arizona mines, a smelter in Hayden, Arizona, and a refinery in Texas. A smelter in El Paso, Texas, temporarily closed in 1999, became the subject of intense controversy when, in 2002, the company applied to renew its air permit. Eventually, ASARCO announced that it would not reopen the plant.
The bankruptcy put in jeopardy every agreement ASARCO had made for remediation and cleanup at over 75 US communities. More than a dozen states and the federal government filed $6 billion in environmental claims. Lois Gibbs of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice warned that the ASARCO filing “could result in the largest, most environmentally significant bankruptcy in America’s history.” Texas State Senator Eliot Shapleigh called it a test case, warning, “this is a strategy that will be used over and over again in the US. The corporations will play out this environmental saga…this is the first one.” By the time the bankruptcy was concluded in December 2009, Grupo Mexico had agreed to a record $2.5 billion payout, the bulk of which went to public agencies for environmental remediation. In Washington State, where we live, ASARCO agreed to pay 27 cents for every dollar requested. Washington is considered one of the lucky claimants; others will receive less.
Under the agreements reached in the bankruptcy court ASARCO is relieved of all the liabilities it incurred during its 100 years of operation. This means that future costs to human health and the environment stemming from the impacts of ASARCO’s 100 years of operations will be borne by workers, families, communities and ultimately, by US taxpayers.
Our project involves research, film, photography, oral history and analytical writing to document the experiences and struggles of people in Ruston/Tacoma Washington; Hayden, Arizona; and El Paso, Texas. We are exploring how communities, through dedicated and strategic networking around shared conditions, have sought to impact and strengthen the policy frameworks that shape environmental and occupational health. We seek to support the work of communities that are educating themselves about the dangers of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other industrial emissions. We also want to support the struggles of workers–often union activists–who have exposed unsafe working conditions in ASARCO’s plants–sometimes at considerable risk to themselves and their families.
We do not oppose industrial development. Copper is an important product, necessary to modern life. But we believe that corporations must be made accountable–to their workers and to the communities in which they are located, as well as to public policies designed to protect human health, safety and the environment. It is clear, as we talk to people who have worked at ASARCO or lived in the shadow of its smokestacks, that their relationships with the company were, and are, complex and conflicted. ASARCO has at times been seen as a benevolent patron. In Ruston, the company collected the garbage, supported a volunteer fire department, donated land for a park, and provided the town with virtually all its operating revenues. In Hayden, generations of men and women went to work at the mine and smelter, and took tremendous pride in the products they produced.
At the same time workers and communities have struggled with the company over safer working and living conditions. In Hayden workers conducted an investigation that revealed that ASARCO systematically altered the lung function test results of Mexican-American workers in order to conceal damage to their lungs. In Ruston, workers published a newsletter warning of the consequences of exposure to arsenic, even though Asarco’s company doctor continued to publish scientific studies, purportedly based on employees’ confidential medical records, asserting that arsenic did not cause significant or permanent damage to human health. In El Paso, ex-ASARCO employees were at the forefront of efforts to prevent the plant from reopening. Basing their demands on the 2006 discovery that ASARCO incinerated hazardous waste from Department of Defense facilities, the workers are demanding medical and environmental testing to establish what was burned, what impacts it has had on them, and how it has affected the local community and environment.
Their Mines, Our Stories is a case study of one corporation in a complex relationship with many communities, unions, and public entities. While not altogether unique, it dramatizes on a broad canvas how a corporation can come to occupy a major role in public and community life, and it demonstrates the consequences when a corporation evades public responsibility for the communities it has polluted, the workers it has endangered, and the public trust it has violated.
Our project is based at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and has been supported by the Labor Education and Research Center, as well as by faculty development grants from Evergreen. It has also been supported and enriched by countless men and women who live and work in ASARCO-impacted communities. We hope our work honors their courage and persistence, as well as the complexity of their experience.