The one square-mile town of Ruston, Washington is enclosed on 3 sides by the larger city of Tacoma. Located on the edge of Commencement Bay, it was originally accessible only by boat. In 1888 Denis Ryan constructed a smelter on the tide flats; in 1890 the smelter was acquired by William Rust. Ruston was created as a company town for Rust’s employees and incorporated in 1906.
Although pressures have been exerted since its inception to incorporate Ruston into Tacoma, the community has remained independent. Ruston’s identity, culture, and economy have always been bound to the smelter. From the early days of strikes and employee-company conflicts, to the public health challenges of the 1970’s and 1980’s, to the current dilemmas and debates about its future development, virtually all of the challenges Ruston has faced have been linked to its industrial history.
The plant was unionized in 1914 by Western Federation of Miners, one of the unions that helped to found the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1916 the local became Mine, Mill and Smelterworkers, Local 25. In 1967 Mine-Mill officially merged with the United Steelworkers. Today theUnited Steelworkers is the main union involved with smelting operations nationally.
For the first five years of operation, the smelter processed lead. In 1903 it expanded to include copper smelting. In 1905 Rust sold the plant to the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), a consortium of mines and smelters led by the Guggenheim family of New York. Located on the tide flats adjacent to Commencement Bay, the smelter received ores from Montana, Idaho, Alaska and the Philippines. By 1912 lead production had ended; the company converted the plant to a specialized “custom” copper smelter with a focus on inexpensive low-grade copper ores contaminated with arsenic.
From its earliest days the smelter’s emissions created controversy. Residents of nearby Tacoma complained about damage to gardens and livestock from sulfur dioxide. Newspaper reports from the period reveal ongoing concerns about odors emanating from the smelter as well as breathing problems when sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions were particularly high. Starting in the 1920’s an ASARCO employee was designated to respond to complaints about property damage and arrange reimbursement for damaged lawns, shrubs, cars, laundry, or injured livestock or pets (Sullivan 2008). By 1909, techniques existed to capture the SO2 gases produced during smelting operations and convert them into sulfuric acid; ASARCO’s strategy, however, was to build high smokestacks to disperse the contaminants more widely. Built in 1917 the Ruston stack stood 571 feet tall, making it the largest industrial structure on the west coast.
Sulfur dioxide is known to cause, or accentuate, asthma, emphysema, breathing difficulties and throat and lung irritations. Over the years, and through many ensuing controversies, ASARCO would continue to insist that high stacks were the only feasible strategy for dealing with SO2 emissions; they would also assert, well into the 1970’s, that SO2 created only minor damage to plants and crops, and only minimal, temporary discomfort to humans.
Morgan Murray. Puget’s Sound: A Narrative History of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981
Sullivan, Marianne. “Game Without End: politics, pollution, public health and the Tacoma Smelter.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 2008.
ASARCO photograph used by permission of Tacoma Public Library
Ruston photograph used by permission of Mike and Tiffany Tallman
From its earliest days Ruston was a close-knit community. Some Ruston residents trace their histories back to the first days of settlement. While many of the first settlers came to work at the smelter, others set up small businesses that were patronized by smelter employees.
Mary Joyce’s father and brothers came from Croatia early in the 20th century.
Mary’s father and brothers opened a grocery store, Kryllich Brothers. Mary remembers that customers often charged their groceries. “Once a month or once every two weeks, when they got paid, the men would come in and settle their accounts.” As a small child Mary was also sent out to take orders which she then would deliver. “I can remember, at 11 years old, driving a car, even though I didn’t have a license, to deliver groceries!”
Besides selling groceries Kryllich Brothers had a boarding house upstairs for single men who worked at the smelter.
A lot of the people who came from the old country were single men and they would board with the family. And it was so crowded! I can remember my mother telling that at one time there were so many people around that they would have shifts. One guy would get out of the bed to go to work at the day shift and the guy who worked the midnight shift would go hop in the bed and stay there during the day.
By the late 1930’s Ruston had churches, fraternal halls, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and a pharmacy. Families settled in the community and bought or built their own homes. Mary Joyce remembers that as her father became a successful businessman, he was often asked to help finance the aspirations of prospective homeowners.
Ruston had one school which the community’s children attended from kindergarden through 8th grade. Mary Joyce recalls:
The school was always a landmark… a community center, almost. If we had a school program it was standing room only… whether you had a kid or not, it seemed like everybody was there. Everybody was either an uncle or an aunt or a grandmother or a grandfather to somebody in the program…you knew everybody and everybody knew you, and if you weren’t there, they’d say, “Where were you?” So it was easier to go!
There were strongly interdependent relationships between the smelter and the town. The Ruston school was heated by steam piped up the hill from the smelter. The company took care of garbage collection and paved the town’s alleys. The smelter whistle was also the fire alarm, and smelter employees acted as a volunteer fire department. Edie Tallman, a long-time resident, recalled, “If anybody had a fire they had to call ASARCO. And they would alarm it with their sirens.”
Sherri Forch moved to Ruston from Tacoma in 1963, when her husband got a job at the smelter. “It was a hard job; it was a heavy job,” she recalls. Sherri’s husband started at the arsenic plant “but he got badly burned up there, he couldn’t work at the arsenic plant.” The company moved him to the fine castings department, while she stayed home to raise their two children. Her husband’s work ‘paid very well; it afforded us some luxuries. We had a camp trailer, and a pick-up truck to pull it, and endless cameras.”
Sherri remembers Ruston as a good place to raise children and a supportive community, where people helped each other out. She remembers it as a safe place, where newcomers were quickly incorporated, and a neighbor would always watch out for a child. Many of her memories of Ruston revolve around the smelter.
We lived by the shift whistles…The whistles blew at 7, 7:30 and 8. And 3, 3:30 and 4. And 7, 7:30 and 8 again in the evening. Now I knew the kids would be coming home from school with the 3:00 whistle. Usually, I was down at the smelter to pick up a load of the guys to come home. And the kids could go outside to play. Then we’d call ‘em in for dinner and they could go back out and play until the 7:00 whistle blew. That was your come-in time. And by 7:30 they needed to be in the tub. And by 8:00 they needed to be in bed. Even in the summertime when it was still really, really light. They really, really hated it. But we pretty much lived by the shift whistles and it really precluded any arguments about what time it was.
Murray Morgan, Puget’s Sound: A Narrative History of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.
Interview with Mary Joyce, Ruston, WA. August 2006.
Interview with Sherri Forch, Ruston, WA. July 2006.
Interview with Edie Tallman, Ruston, WA. August 2006.
Historical photographs of Ruston used by permission of Tacoma Public Library
For many years ASARCO was one of the largest employers in the county, employing 1300 workers at its peak. ASARCO’s taxes provided virtually all of Ruston’s municipal revenues. The smelter’s operations helped build and shape the economy of the region and were central to the development of port operations in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay. ASARCO’s slag (a metallic waste product derived from smelting) built up the tideflats around the bay, making them suitable for industry.
Most Ruston residents had family members who worked at the smelter or at one of the nearby businesses. Smelter workers who lived in the community generally walked to work, but at the end of a shift, when workers were tired, it was a long walk back up the hill to town. On payday there were other temptation as well. On the walk home workers had to pass several bars, any one of which would cash a check and start a tab for an Asarco employee and his friends. Attentive spouses tended to head off this problem by picking up their men as they left the plant on payday.
The smelter regularly hired the children of its employees, and young men from the community, and nearby Tacoma often worked at the smelter in the summer and joined the permanent workforce when they left school. After World War II, ASARCO had a policy of requiring its workers to have high school diplomas. The work was known to be hard, hot, and dangerous, but it paid well, in part because of an active union, which could mobilize the support of virtually the entire town during strikes. There was a major strike in 1946, a lockout in 1950 and another lockout and major work stoppage in 1959. After Mine, Mill and Smelterworkers merged with the United Steelworkers in 1967, the union struck for 9 and ½ months. According to Chuck O’Donahue, the last business agent for the Steelworkers, “Strikes were a common thing to us. Every 3 years we would strike.”
O’Donahue recalls that the Steelworkers had established coordinated bargaining systems with the steel and aluminum industry. Under coordinated bargaining a single contract was negotiated with multiple employers. The contracts expired simultaneously. Coordinated bargaining was a powerful tool used by unions to bring pressure to bear on recalcitrant companies. After the Steelworkers took over the Mine-Mill locals, they attempted to introduce coordinated bargaining into the copper industry, but were unsuccessful.
We are going to have consolidated bargaining; we will all sit at one table. Kennecott, Anaconda, Phelps-Dodge, Asarco…But there was no coordinated bargaining…Asarco would say, “I don’t care what those sons of bitches from Phelps Dodge say… I don’t care what they got, don’t expect to get it in your contract.” They hated each other! …It took the Steelworkers 6 months to finally realize that was never ever going to happen.
O’Donahue recalls that after the 1979 contract some of employees’ wives sued Asarco for gender discrimination. The company had no female employees. The company responded by hiring several women, all of whom received letters from the plant’s doctor–Asarco’s medical director, Sherman Pinto. The letter warned that arsenic in plant emissions was potentially harmful to women’s reproductive systems.
I read it. And I said, “Well, are you thinking of having children? It’s telling you that if you’re gonna work down here, you shouldn’t. That arsenic is harmful to the reproductive organs of the female. So I called [Dr. Pinto] the next day and I said, “Now all the time I thought it took two organs to reproduce..’ And he says, ‘Well, I didn’t put it in there for men, but it’s just as dangerous to men as it is to women.’ And I said, ‘How long have you known this?” It was a study that he had done and never disclosed to anybody until that particular time.But it was just the way Asarco did things. If the CIA could get into Asarco and find out how they kept their secrets, they’d have a wonderful thing.
Interview with Chuck O’Donahue, Ruston, WA. May 2006
Photographs used by permission of the Tacoma Public Library
Because of the plant’s economic importance, town residents were generally willing to live with odors, noise and acid rain caused by proximity to the smelter. Sherri Forch said,
When the wind went bad and the dust blew down, if there was smelter dust on your car and it damaged it, the smelter would pay for a paint job or to get it cleaned up. And if you got damage from something else they would write a check. They were a good neighbor in the sense that they could not control what the wind was doing with the effluent, but if you had damage, they reimbursed.
Acid rain could damage the finish of cars, sidings, or clothing hanging on a line. Edie Tallman remembered:
I have white vinyl siding and at one time that turned yellow. And sometimes you had to redo the laundry because it just made spots on it…You knew it was from the Asarco because it was coming out of the smokestack. But you didn’t know what it was. So people would get really upset about that when they had to do their laundry twice.
During the first half of the 20th century most complaints and concerns about the smelter focused on sulfur dioxide emissions. By the late 1940’s concern about SO2 was so persistent in nearby Tacoma that the Chamber of Commerce pressured Asarco to build an acid plant to capture the gas and convert it to sulfuric acid. Although techniques for sulfur recovery had been utilized by smelters since 1909, Asarco argued that an acid plant would not be cost-effective because there was a limited market for sulfuric acid. In 1950 the company finally bowed to pressure and built the plant. Approximately 18% of the noxious gases were captured by Asarco’s acid plant, while at other smelters 3-4 times as much SO2 was diverted. This did not satisfy newly arrived residents to Tacoma’s West End, where, in the early 1950’s, neighbors formed an association to investigate the cause of health problems in their neighborhood. People complained about pets dying, yards where nothing grew, and children who developed asthma and acute breathing problems when SO2 emissions were high. The association began to pressure state and county agencies to monitor and regulate Asarco emissions. Although their focus was on SO2, the neighborhood group also requested that the state gather information about heavy metal emissions from the plant, particularly arsenic (Sullivan 2008).
In the 1960’s government agencies, including the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency (created in 1967), the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, and the Tacoma City Council, began to focus more attention on ASARCO. Community members continued to pressure the smelter to improve its SO2 emissions, although dispersion via the stack, presented as a temporary solution during the 1920’s, was still ASARCO’s preferred solution forty years later. Asarco continued to insist that sulfur dioxide was not harmful, would not damage crops, plants or livestock, and caused only temporary discomfort to humans. At the same time Asarco created its own environmental research department and conducted more research on SO2 emissions than any other U.S. company of the period; none of their findings were released to the public (Sullivan 2008).
The Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency (PSPAPCA) made frequent attempts to regulate ASARCO’s SO2 emissions. The agency’s records document numerous attempts to cite ASARCO for violations of ambient SO2 standards, and to persuade or force ASARCO into compliance. ASARCO responded with litigation, requests for variances (exceptions) and public relations campaigns and lobbying to convince the PSAPCA board and elected officials to loosen air quality controls. By1985 when the Ruston smelter closed, the company had reduced its emissions to 58% of pre-1960’s levels, but it was still out of compliance with state and local SO2 regulations which required it to reduce emissions by 90%.(Sullivan 2008).
The sulfur…as you come down I-5, they used to say, “Well, you’re in Tacoma; you’ve got the aroma of Tacoma.” Which, of course, was St. Regis Paper Mill. But it was not St. Regis that was doin’ it; it was all Asarco. (Chuck O’Donahue, Steelworkers business agent, Ruston/Tacoma, WA.)
In 1972 lead poisoning was discovered in children living in El Paso, Texas. The children lived in Smeltertown, a Mexican-American community located adjacent to and below the ASARCO smelter smokestack. This was the first time that lead poisoning in children had been definitively linked to smelter emissions. In the Puget Sound region air quality agencies and health departments began to test for lead and arsenic in soil as well as in the hair, blood and urine of children living near the ASARCO smelter. Dr. Sam Milham of the Washington State Health Department sampled children’s urine and found that children living within a half mile of the stack were found to have average arsenic concentrations 15 times higher than what was then considered safe for humans (Sullivan 2008, 204). The state Health Department asked for comprehensive studies, including bio-monitoring of residents and extensive soil and air sampling. In 1973 the head of environmental health for the Health Department wrote to the EPA: “Our investigation has shown the problems to have significant impact beyond the people of Ruston, and…the total environment may be adversely influenced by the smelter” (Sullivan 2008. 223).
Tests of grass samples near the smelter where horses were pastured showed potentially fatal lead levels, and samples of garden vegetables found mercury, lead and arsenic (Sullivan 2008, 225). In January 1974 the regional office of the EPA requested funding for comprehensive studies, stating,
The Asarco smelter pours tons of material into the atmosphere daily. Among the pollutants emitted are known to be lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, all of which are toxic materials. The smelter has been in operation 85 years during which time the emissions have been virtually uncontrolled. Build-up of the…metals in the soil, plants, and possibly in the bodies of people living in the area proximate to the Smelter could pose a serious health hazard to those individuals…A potential public health problem of unknown extent exists in this area (Sullivan 2008, 227).
Sullivan, Marianne, “Game Without End: politics, pollution, public health and the Tacoma Smelter. Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 2008.
Interview with Chuck O’Donahue. Ruston, Washington, May 2006.
Interview with Sherri Forch. Ruston, Washington, July 2006.
Interview with Edie Tallman. Ruston, Washington, August 2006.
By the 1970’s there were growing concerns about health and safety issues at ASARCO’s Ruston plant. The work was known to be hard and dangerous, but high wages and an active union sustained the workers, especially when jobs were particularly dirty or difficult.
Rodger Jones was hired at Asarco in 1965. At first he worked as a skimmer helper. The skimmer would open the furnace to skim off impurities from the molten ore. The impurities, or slag, would be poured into railroad cars, driven out to the bay, and dumped. As it cooled, the slag formed a solid metallic substance similar to congealed lava. Over time the slag dumped from Asarco’s furnaces built up the tideflats and extended the land areas around the bay.
Skimming was dangerous work.
Occasionally the skimmer was unable to plug up the furnace, and a runaway was created, where molten copper spilled on the floor. Someone would have to cross the pool of hot, liquid metal to seal the furnace and stop the runaway. Rodger was badly injured during a runaway, and left the plant. He returned in 1967.
I started going to union meetings…You’d listen to people in the lunchroom and if you weren’t a union member, you weren’t welcome. So I decided I wanted to be part of it, I wanted to be welcome, so I joined the union. Didn’t have a union background, didn’t know a lot about unions, but started getting interested, and started looking at some of the safety concerns and the health concerns.
Like his fellow workers Rodger was familiar with some of the health and safety risks. He had seen that new workers were often sent to the roaster ovens (where the first contaminants were removed) or to the arsenic plant itself. The Ruston smelter received the bulk of its ores from the Philippines; the ores were heavily contaminated with arsenic, and the smelter extracted the arsenic and re-sold it commercially.
And for some people, their skin couldn’t take it [the arsenic]. They would get bad dermatitis and…little boils—there was just a real bad reaction.
Rodger had some near misses while working on the feed floor above the furnace. The feed floor was made up of four-foot square gratings–below it, larry cars transported ore to be dropped into the furnace and smelted. When the ore was dropped in the furnace, it created “blowback,” a white sulfur cloud.
ASARCO’s sulfur dioxide emissions were a recognized hazard, both in the plant and in the community. The potential for damage from arsenic was less well-known or understood. The Tacoma smelter was one of the largest producers of arsenic in the world. In studies conducted in the early 1970’s by researchers from the University of Washington, ambient arsenic concentrations in Ruston/Tacoma were found to be eight times the national average.* Then, in 1972, Dr. Samuel Milham, Director of the Washington State Health Department, found elevated arsenic levels in the urine of Ruston children living near the smelter smokestack. These research findings initiated a local, and ultimately, a national effort to create a standard for industrial exposure to arsenic.* *
Rodger and two co-workers decided to start a newsletter, The Smelterworker. The first issue, printed in 1972, featured Dr. Milham’s research. Concerned about health impacts in the community and their implications for workers in the plant, Rodger began to investigate. He went to Olympia to interview Dr. Milham.
I wanted to interview him because I was saying, ‘If they have concerns about the kids in Ruston and their exposure to arsenic, what about people working in the plant? You know, there’s got to be some concern there!’ That interview, and a lot of subsequent research opened my eyes quite a bit. And the first thing I found out was that our doctor, Doctor Pinto, was the foremost authority on arsenic exposure in the United States.
Q: He was the staff doctor at Asarco?
A: Yes, he was. And all the literature I was doing research on kept pointing to him as the foremost authority.
Q: Had he ever talked to you about arsenic?
A: He never talked to anybody about anything.
The Smelterworker was tackling some of the major issues ASARCO workers faced on the job. Milham’s study had opened the door for workers, community residents and researchers to inquire into the health impacts from exposure to the contaminants produced by smelting, especially arsenic. Dr. Pinto’s studies, published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals, were based on ASARCO personnel records, records that should have been confidential and protected. Furthermore, they consistently asserted that arsenic caused only minimal—and temporary—damage to the bodies of exposed ASARCO workers. In 1963, the same year that Sherri Forch and her husband settled in Ruston, Dr. Pinto, ASARCO Medical Director and B.M. Bennett, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, published a study in the Archives of Environmental Health Journal, entitled “Effect of Arsenic Trioxide Exposure on Mortality.” This was one of approximately 10 articles, published over 15 years by Pinto and his various associates, which dealt with the effects of arsenic exposure on workers at the Ruston/Tacoma smelter. The 1963 study examined causes of death (as reported by the attending physician to the life insurance company retained and funded by Asarco) among 229 smelter employees. The study concluded, “there was no evidence that chronic arsenic trioxide exposure of the amount described in this study is a cause of systemic cancer in humans.”
Some years later Pinto was forced to acknowledge that while the cause of death given by the attending physician in his study was rarely “cancer,” it was often listed as an illness resulting from complications caused by cancer. Thus, in 1977 Pinto and four co-writers published a revised study of 527 ASARCO retirees which found that “overall morality of this cohort…was “12.2% higher than for males of the same area, at the same ages, and in the same time period. The excess mortality was due chiefly to respiratory cancer, which was three times the expected, and was not due to cigarette smoking.” This study conclusively tied lung cancer to arsenic exposure.
But in 1972, when Rodger first began to publish The Smelterworker, clear data did not exist about mortality rates from arsenic exposure. The union hesitated to endorse the newsletter. Rodger remembers,
After several months, however, the local union leadership made a decision to support the production and funding of The Smelterworker. Ultimately, The Smelterworker won three national awards and became a source of pride to the local and the international. Rodger was elected to the local’s safety committee and continued to monitor safety conditions in the plant. But many workers continued to fear that pressure to reduce emissions and strengthen safety measures would force the company to close, a fear Asarco frequently exploited.
The threat of closing down was always hanging over our heads. The concern was the union didn’t want to be the one to put the last nail in the coffin. So they were very concerned.
That fear was real. In that 9-month strike, in 1967, I watched good friends of mine in their ‘60’s that lost their homes. Lost their credit…lost their families because of divorce. They were willing to fight for their jobs, but they sacrificed. Seeing that, and seeing what happened to other people, that fear was real. If you worked at a plant for 30 years and it’s all you know, it’s industrial, you know, you’re not ready to quit and become a baker. You just don’t have the skill-set.
Asarco attempted to use employees’ fears to divide the workers and silence safety concerns. Rodger remembers,
*See Sullivan, Marianne, “The Struggle to Regulate the Tacoma Smelter: 1900-1985,”in the Community Stories section of this website
**See Sullivan, Marianne, “Contested Science and Exposed Workers: ASARCO and the Occupational Standard for Inorganic Arsenic,” Public Health Reports 2007 July-August; 122(4): 541-547. Also in the Public Health section of this website.
Interview with Rodger Jones. Tacoma, Washington, June 2006.
Pinto, S, Bennett, B.M., “Effect of Arsenic Trioxide Exposure on Mortality.” Archives of Enviornmental Health, Vol. 7, Nov. 1963, 583-591.
Pinto, S., Enterline, P., Henderson, V., Varner, M, “Mortality Experience in Relation to a Measured Arsenic Trioxide Exposure.” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 19, 1977, 127-130.
Photograph used by permission of the Tacoma Public Library
Note: This essay was contributed by Marianne Sullivan, MPH, a researcher, teacher and epidemiologist. Marianne’s dissertation on Asarco’s Tacoma/Ruston smelter is cited frequently in our work.
The Tacoma smelter was one of the country’s most polluting nonferrous smelters. In its century of operation in Ruston, Washington (1890-1985), it produced lead, copper, arsenic trioxide, sulfuric acid and precious metals. Primarily a copper smelter, the Tacoma smelter was unique for several reasons: it was able to process ore with a high arsenic content; it was the only U.S. producer of arsenic trioxide after 1965; and it was located in an urbanizing area.
The environmental consequences of nearly a century of smelting are widespread arsenic, lead and other heavy metal contamination of mainland soils; contamination of islands and sediments in Puget Sound; and arsenic-containing slag, dispersed throughout the region. Social consequences include residents’ concerns about health, as awareness of potential exposure to toxins has been introduced into every day activities; law suits against ASARCO; concerns about property values; and public questioning of the government agencies that were charged with regulating the plant and protecting the public’s health.
In its century of operation in Tacoma, the ASARCO plant was never adequately regulated. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the company successfully used threats of closure and job loss as bargaining chips to forestall regulatory action that would have required cash outlays to upgrade the aging, heavily polluting facility. During the uncertain economic climate of the 1970s and early 1980s, this tactic worked to sway public opinion to some extent, as well as many regulators and elected officials.
This short article briefly describes the struggles of citizens, activists, environmental groups, lawyers, and some government officials, throughout the twentieth century, to regulate the noxious mixture of sulfur dioxide, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals that spewed from the smelter’s tall smokestack, which imperiled the health of Puget Sound residents, and despoiled the environment.
The early years
Calls by citizens to curtail the pollution from the smelter’s smokestack that killed off natural vegetation in the area, damaged gardens, and contaminated locally grown food, date back to the early part of the twentieth century. By 1905, complaints of the “smoke nuisance” would cause the company to rebuild the smelter stack, making it the tallest concrete chimney in the world, in an attempt to dissipate the sulfurous and heavy metal laden fumes.[i] In 1916, Tacoma neighbors organized the “North End Improvement Club” to protest smelter fumes that blanketed the area.[ii] The following year, the stack was raised again, this time to 571-feet. ASARCO assured angry neighbors that this new, taller stack would solve the problem. Increasing the height of the smokestack to effect better dispersion of contaminants was ASARCO’s favored strategy for mitigating sulfur dioxide related air pollution complaints. At many of their smelters in the west, they relied on this approach for “pollution control” and funded an extensive research department which helped to convince government officials that “dispersion” was an effective approach to limiting damage to agriculture and forest land surrounding smelters. Though technology was available early in the century to capture sulfur dioxide emissions, ASARCO resisted this solution at Tacoma, and at many of their other smelters in the west, because they felt that it would not be profitable.
Despite episodic citizen anger and complaints to the local health department and elected officials, the Tacoma smelter was not required by any government entity to capture its sulfur emissions in the first half of the century. In the early 1950s, they installed a recovery system that captured about 18% of input sulfur, but this did little to solve citizen complaints. Tacoma leaders maintained, until the late 1960s, that they had no power to act to control the smelter’s emissions, as it was located in the separate town of Ruston, outside of the city’s jurisdiction.
Sulfur dioxide was the pollutant that was most noticeable to the community, as it seared lawns, killed gardens, exacerbated asthma and respiratory conditions and provoked choking sensations. Sulfur dioxide from the Tacoma smelter was also a chief contributor to acid rain in the region.
Air Pollution and the Tacoma smelter post-World War II
After World War II, public consciousness nationwide was changing about air pollution. For many decades, industry contended that air pollution was simply a nuisance, and not a threat to health, as ASARCO did in Tacoma. But after several air pollution disasters, some involving smelters (e.g. Meuse Valley, Belgium, Donora, PA) the public was increasingly linking air pollution with health damage.
This changing conceptualization of air pollution was reflected in citizen organizing in Tacoma by the late 1950s. By then, a post-War population boom, meant that more housing was being built in the path of the smelter’s summer smoke stream, and the smelter’s location was becoming decidedly disadvantageous. Though ASARCO fostered loyalty in many local residents, others began organizing to protect health and property from damage from SO2 and later, heavy metals. Concerned Tacoma residents lobbied local, state and federal officials—to little effect—to gain relief, mostly from sulfur dioxide, in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Despite the efforts of citizen activists from North Tacoma, neither the city of Tacoma nor the state of Washington took concrete steps to abate the smelter’s pollution during this time period.
The introduction of local, state and federal environmental regulation
With the introduction of modern environmental regulation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, new dimensions were added to what was by then an old debate over reducing the smelter’s sulfur dioxide pollution. Ostensibly, local, state and federal regulators had the authority to reduce the plant’s emissions. Air pollution control authority at the local level was vested in the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency (PSAPCA).
Organized environmental groups became involved in regulatory struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Washington Lung Association played a leadership role, and in the mid-1970s, more groups became involved, including local advocacy groups from Tacoma and Vashon Island such as GASP (Group Against Smog Pollution), APE (Americans Protecting the Environment), IRATE (Island Residents Against Toxic Emissions), the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth. Clean Air for Washington and the Washington Environmental Council used the courts to try to press for controls. Their combined advocacy and oversight made it clear that the actions of ASARCO and regulatory agencies were being closely monitored. PSAPCA’s relatively modest regulatory accomplishments with respect to the smelter, probably would not have been possible without citizen advocacy.[iii] Additionally, citizen legal challenges established some important precedents for environmental law in the state.
The 90% Standard for Sulfur Dioxide
Shortly after PSAPCA was formed, reducing emissions from the Tacoma smelter became the agency’s number one priority. The smelter was the largest source of SO2 pollution by far in the Puget Sound region—in the mid-1970s, PSAPCA said it was responsible for 85% of the region’s SO2 emissions.[iv] The agency rejected a request by ASARCO to build a 1,000 foot stack, rather than capture sulfur emissions. PSAPCA had determined, based on research conducted by the federal government, that ASARCO could feasibly capture 90% of input sulfur. This rule was also adopted in other smelting states. Industry fought the rule fiercely, and also fought its incorporation into the federal Clean Air Act, which helped to undermine EPA’s enforcement of the standard by PSAPCA. Though PSAPCA never changed its expectation that ASARCO would capture 90% of its sulfur emissions, the company successfully used threats of closure to gain extensions to compliance deadlines. When the Tacoma smelter closed in 1985, it was capturing, at best, about half of input sulfur, and often not meeting the looser federal standard of 51%.
Regulating arsenic in air
Arsenic and other heavy metal emissions from the Tacoma smelter were a related but separate problem to that of sulfur dioxide. The Tacoma plant was one of the largest anthropogenic sources for arsenic in the world. Arsenic emissions after the introduction of high arsenic copper ore, probably in 1913, until controls (electrostatic precipitators) were installed, may have been between 35 to 67 tons per day.[v]
The smelter’s toxic metal emissions remained unregulated until the 1970s. Up until then, government officials basically took the company’s word for it that toxic metal emissions were well controlled. ASARCO did install electrostatic precipitators (EPs) to capture heavy metals, the first one in 1918, and two more in later decades. Electrostatic precipitators capture heavy metals from smelter smokestreams through the use of electrical charges. Captured metals, such as arsenic, could then be sold at a profit.
The EPs functioned as a pollution control device and captured a portion of the smelter’s toxic metals, but when studies were conducted in the early 1970s, ambient arsenic concentrations in Tacoma were measured at eight times the national average.[vi] The UW researchers who conducted the study urged that standard for arsenic in air be set. At the time, arsenic was known to cause skin cancer, and evidence was accumulating that it was a respiratory carcinogen. Today, arsenic is known to cause cancer in many different organs.
The discovery of elevated arsenic concentrations in the urine of children who lived near the smelter’s stack in 1972 led to calls from state and local health departments, among others, [vii] for PSAPCA to regulate the smelter’s arsenic emissions. In addition, state and local health department investigators and other researchers had identified significant environmental contamination with arsenic in the region in the early 1970s.
PSAPCA favored the prompt adoption of an ambient air standard for arsenic, and enlisted EPA’s assistance in this effort. [viii],[ix] The agency was already engaged in discussions with ASARCO on lowering their heavy metal emissions, and had recommended that they “…make all reasonable efforts to abate emissions of arsenic and lead to the lowest level practicable by application of the best available technology.”[x] At the time, there was no legally enforceable standard, either federal, state or local that would have put a limit on arsenic emissions.
Limited air sampling for arsenic in the vicinity of the smelter in the early 1970s found arsenic concentrations taken 2 miles from the smelter averaged 1.5 μg/m3. The maximum concentration was 9.8 μg/m3, 89 times higher than the U.S. urban average. Even in the area beyond two miles from the smelter, the maximum concentration was close to 2.0 μg/m3.[xi]
By early 1973, PSAPCA believed that ASARCO was emitting about 1,000 pounds of arsenic per day from the tall stack. But, the agency had yet to estimate emission rates or measure ambient air concentrations of other toxic metals present in the smelter’s emissions such as mercury, copper, lead, and cadmium.[xii]
Setting a Local Standard for Arsenic
PSAPCA thought that EPA’s standard-setting process for arsenic could take up to a year or more and the agency wanted to achieve control of arsenic emissions in a more timely fashion. Public hearings were held in February of 1973, and a plan was adopted for upgrading the plant’s pollution controls.
Over the decade of the 1970s, arsenic emissions from the smelter’s tall stack decreased because of the control requirements imposed by PSAPCA. But ASARCO never installed a baghouse for tall stack emissions—a proven pollution control technology that would have significantly increased capture of the plant’s toxic metals.[xiii] In addition, fugitive, or low level emissions remained a significant problem.
The presumption of health officials and PSAPCA was that controls installed by ASARCO would lead to declining urinary arsenic concentrations in Ruston children. However, Dr. Sam Milham of the Washington State Department of Health determined in 1976 that children’s urinary arsenic concentrations were not declining as expected. [xiv] In a letter to PSAPCA, Milham wrote:
For comparable groups, arsenic levels are about the same now as they were four years ago. If the extensive emission control activities undertaken by the Smelter have had an impact on overall community arsenic exposure, I cannot demonstrate it in this urinary arsenic data…I conclude that Ruston children are still being exposed to very high levels of arsenic in their environment.[xv]
Within EPA Region 10, some staff were very concerned about the impact that the smelter’s toxic metals emission might be having on the health of the region’s residents. In January of 1974, in an effort to direct resources toward the problem, a regional staff member wrote:
The ASARCO Smelter pours tons of material into the atmosphere daily. Among the pollutants emitted are known to be Pb (lead), Hg (mercury), Cd (cadmium), and As (arsenic), all of which are toxic materials. A potential public health problem of unknown extent exists in this area.[xvi]
By the end of 1974, EPA Region 10, had designated the Tacoma smelter “the number one air pollution problem in the Puget Sound region.”[xvii] But the Region’s elevation of the problem did little to get EPA headquarters moving expeditiously. Headquarters was skeptical of the carcinogenic threat posed by airborne arsenic. The regulation of heavy metals, with the exception of lead, came under the air toxics provisions of the Clean Air Act. To regulate it, arsenic would first have to be declared a hazardous air pollutant and then Headquarters would have to promulgate a standard. EPA was taking a very conservative approach to regulating air toxics– Between 1970 and 1990 the agency set standards for just seven hazardous air pollutants.[xviii]
The slow pace on regulating arsenic by EPA Headquarters appeared to be at least in part political, justified on the basis of inadequate scientific evidence, since EPA was alone among federal regulatory agencies in their skepticism with respect to the science on arsenic’s carcinogenicity.
When EPA missed an August, 1978 deadline to decide on listing arsenic as a hazardous air pollutant, the Environmental Defense Fund filed suit asking the court to order EPA to declare arsenic a hazardous air pollutant or detail why it would not.[xix] It would take EPA until June of 1980 to declare arsenic a hazardous air pollutant. Almost a decade had passed since Region 10, local regulators and environmental groups had first asked for Headquarters’ help on regulating arsenic.
The 1980s saw vigorous debate over the extent to which the smelter would clean up its arsenic emissions. After remaining relatively hands-off in the 1970s, EPA Headquarters took a prominent, but controversial role under the leadership of Administrator William Ruckelshaus. With the expressed intent of promoting public participation in environmental decision-making, EPA held public meetings to ask whether residents favored further pollution controls or plant closure and job losses. In the end, EPA took so long to promulgate a final regulation for arsenic that the plant shut down in 1985 before federal regulation occurred.
The failure to adequately regulate the smelter’s considerable arsenic releases meant that throughout the 1970s and 80s ambient air concentrations remained high, as did concentrations of urinary arsenic in children, until the time the smelter closed in 1985.
Both before and after 1970, government agencies approached the problem of the Tacoma smelter’s emissions from the perspective of weighing the costs and benefits of pollution control. Without definitive evidence of health problems in the community, relative inaction could be and was justified, and the burden of proof that health was being harmed was largely on the community. The immediate costs to industry of pollution control were prioritized over the substantial costs—both immediate, and long term—to the region’s residents. The Tacoma smelter’s legacy of pollution remains an on-going challenge as regulators and environmental scientists grapple with how to reduce exposure to and clean up the vast quantities of toxic metals that now contaminate the region’s soils.
[i] “Mammoth New Chimney Just Completed at Tacoma Smelter,” The Daily Ledger (May 7, 1905), 4.
[ii] H.Y. Walker, Tacoma Smelter Manager to Mr. Karl Eilers, Vice President, ASARCO, “Internal ASARCO Correspondence,” (September 20, 1916), Branin v. ASARCO.
[iii] Arthur Dammkoehler, interview conducted by the author, (July 20, 2005), digital audio recording, Mercer Island, Washington, file in author’s possession.
[iv] Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency (April 22, 1974), The Concentration of Lead, Arsenic, Mercury, Cadmium, Sulfur Dioxide and Suspended Sulfates Downwind from the Tacoma Smelter, the Impact and Control Status, and Benefits from Reduction, Interim Report for Presentation to the ASARCO Impact Task Force Being Coordinated by EPA, 28, Environmental Protection Agency Site File, Commencement Bay/Nearshore Tideflats ASARCO Smelter Facility Site File, hereafter referred to as ASDSF, 1.6.3.
[v] Estimates of historic emissions for the Tacoma Smelter have not been made in the published literature. Glass in the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Credible Evidence Report invites the reader to make comparisons with Anaconda, which emitted up to 75 tons of arsenic per day prior to installing Cottrell electrostatic precipitators. In a personal communication with this author, Glass estimated that prior to the installation of EPs, based on estimates of throughput and slag output, emissions of arsenic to the air could have been between 37 and 67.5 tons per day. However, the arsenic content of ore in the early years of the smelter’s operation is not well documented; Gregory L. Glass, environmental scientist, written personal communication, (February 1, 2008), in possession of author.
[vi] H. Alsid, B. Amundson, G. Hofer, D. Lutrick, “The Tacoma Air Pollution Study (July-August 1970),” (September 30, 1970), Air & Resources Program, Water and Air Resources Division, Department of Civil Engineering, University of WA, Seattle, University of Washington Special Collections, American Lung Association Records, 5271-1 B4 F15.
[vii] Wallace Lane, MD, to Arthur Dammkoehler and Board of Directors, PSAPCA, “Letter,” (November 9, 1972), ASDSF 1.1.1.
[viii] Arthur Dammkoehler to Wallace Lane, MD, “Letter: Lead and Arsenic Studies, Vicinity of ASARCO Copper Smelter,” (November 13, 1972), ASDSF 1.1.1.
[ix] Arthur Dammkoehler to James Agee, Administrator, Region 10 EPA, “Letter: Request for EPA Technical Assistance in Establishing Ambient Air and Emission Standards for Arsenic,” (November 14, 1972), Environmental Protection Agency Site File, ASARCO Administrative Record, Microfilm, hereafter referred to as ASAR, with microfilm number and start frame number following, ASA 208 1375.
[x] G.C. Hofer, M.J. Svoboda, A.E. Parlier, R.D. Pollock, Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency “Interim Report: Lead and arsenic content in the soil affected by the copper smelter located in Tacoma, Washington,” (October, 1972), King County Archives, Box Health Department Director Issue Files 68-79, Folder 10 Lead Poisoning 1972-79.
[xi] Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency, “Staff Report: Section 9.19 Regulation I Arsenic Emission Standard,” (February 14, 1973), ASDSF 1.1.1.
[xiii] John W. Roberts, Air Pollution Engineer to Chief-Engineering, “Internal PSAPCA Memorandum: Arsenic and Particulate Emission Reductions Possible with Baghouse on Tall Stack at ASARCO,” (June 16, 1975), Ecology electronic files.
[xiv] Samuel Milham, Jr., MD to Arthur Dammkoehler, “Letter,” (October 1, 1976), ASDSF 126.96.36.199. [Three tables with urinary arsenic concentrations attached].
[xvi] James Everts, Research & Development Representative, Region X, Requestor, “Environmental Research Needs: Hazard Evaluation of the Tacoma, Washington, ASARCO Copper Smelter” (January 31, 1974) Environmental Protection Agency Site File, Commencement Bay/Nearshore Tideflats, ASARCO Administrative Record, hereafter AR, 1.1.
[xvii] Terrance R. Strong to Smelter Task Force, “Meeting Minutes: Smelter Task Force Meeting,” (December 18, 1974), ASAR ASA 211 Frame 1437.
[xviii] K.W. Olden, and J. Guthrie, “Air Toxics Regulatory Issues Facing Urban Settings,” Environmental Health Perspectives 104 Supplement 5 (1996), 857-60.
[xix] “Group Seeking Limits on Arsenic in the Air Files Suit Against U.S.,” Wall Street Journal (August 16, 1978), 3.
THE TACOMA PROCESS: JOBS vs. HEALTH
The story of ASARCO and its long path as a corporate entity in the US and other countries is marked by one very significant moment – what has been called “the Tacoma Process.” In 1983 the Ruston/Tacoma and Pierce County area was enduring much turmoil about the impacts Asarco’s emissions –whether stack emissions or fugitive emissions (the ground-level, less monitored emissions that can have substantial environmental health impacts on workers, residents, and the local environment).
Workers knew that they were dealing with impacts – whether through accidents or on-site exposure to arsenic and other contaminants. But they also were caught in the classic “no exit” – jobs versus health. As is typical for anyone who cares about putting food on the table, the workers at Asarco were willing to endure discomfort and risks associated with their jobs. But in the 1970’s the union threw its support behind “The Smelterworker,” and Rodger Jones and some of his co-workers were monitoring safety and health in the plant. Key players in the regional environmental and public health movements were increasingly voicing their concerns about Asarco’s emissions—especially the Sierra Club, the Lung Association and an upstart group called Tacomans for a Healthy Environment (headed up by Brian Baird, PhD psychology student, later to become Representative in the US House of Representatives, 3rd District).
In 1983, under the Reagan Administration, William Ruckelshaus, the newly re-installed head of the EPA (he’d served before, under Nixon) was faced with the challenge of developing a national standard for arsenic emissions. On July 12, under pressure from a US District Court order, Ruckelshaus announced a proposed standard that would strengthen the public health protections the EPA was charged with ensuring. The proposal: a standard that would reduce the then-current risk of 4 additional cancer cases in a 12-mile radius of the Tacoma smelter down to one additional case a year in the region. Rather than press on to a decision, the Ruckelshaus administration offered what was described as an opportunity for participatory democracy. The residents and workers in the Tacoma area were invited to weigh in on the difficult decision, one that weighed the threats to environmental health against the threats to a certain kind of economic health, the availability of jobs.
This was a first for the EPA. In existence for over a decade and charged with making decisions that were public health protective, the EPA was venturing out to enlist and invite the public into the challenges of standard-setting and difficult choices. EPA Region 10 in Seattle dedicated much time and energy to stimulating and corralling public interest in this volatile issue, one that had already torn the community and the region as they grappled with an impossible “choice” (or non-choice, as many would assert). The Region 10 staff, in collaboration with an array of public officials, agency staffers, non-governmental organizations and union advocates, organized a series of workshops providing technical information and opportunities for intense discussion and searching Q&A exchanges.
The Tacoma Process got a lot of local attention, but it also stirred the national press to comment on the challenges foisted on the community. Instead of being lauded as a great exercise in democracy, many on-the-ground citizens and national commentators saw the process as a cruel exercise that offered few meaningful choices. Some people attended the EPa-sponsored meetings with the button “Jobs,” others with “Health”, others with “Both.” National headlines identified the dilemma that had befallen the community:
“Smelter workers have choice: Keep their jobs or their health?” (Chicago Tribune)
“What cost a life? EPA Asks Tacoma,” Los Angeles Times
“Tacoma Gets Choice: Cancer Risk or Lost Jobs” New York Times
But Ruckelshaus pressed on. He rejected the N.Y.Times’ depiction of his offer as “inexcusable”, the dictate of a modern day Caesar “who would ask the amphitheater crowd to signal with thumbs up or down whether a defeated gladiator should live or die.” He urged people to grasp the complexities of his position: being in Washington, D.C.,, he had much to learn from people in the region and wanted to take all comments into account. At the same time, Ruckelshaus wasn’t shifting the decision to the people of Ruston and Tacoma that responsibility would be his alone.
The very volatile, newsworthy meetings went on. The EPA staff, beyond all others, seemed to have learned a lot about the volatility of the turf that they were in. Press accounts reported that participants wanted to hear more than just the technicalities (the maps, the wind charts, the risk estimates). They wanted to offer their own ethical judgments and explain their sense of the risks that linked family, workplace and community. Some press and agency accounts made sharp distinctions between comments they saw as “rational” and others they deemed “cultural.” But questions about whether dirt would need to be removed “from my garden” proved to be not “just personal” at all; in fact, a prominent feature of public policy that emerged from the Tacoma Process was soil removal as part of the remediation. The rational vs. cultural comparison was misleading. The people of Ruston and Tacoma were asking important, heartfelt—and analytically strong—questions. The perspective, research and exposure estimates presented by the key regional body, the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Authority, were more in keeping with the broad display of public concern evidenced by the approximately 800 people who attended the workshops than was the narrower approach of the EPA.
The most common depiction of the Tacoma Process—that it all boiled down to a jobs-versus-health standoff—is misleading. In some ways, amidst the volatility and press-drama, many people held to the “both” position. Through the meetings, many neighbors and regional environmentalists became much more tuned in to the job concerns of workers and listened with gravity as workers spoke of the demoralization they experienced and of their fears that Asarco would close and leave them jobless. Mike Wright, an industrial hygienist with the US Steelworkers, took a middle ground and opened the door to worker-neighbor alliances. “No one has to convince our union that arsenic at high levels is risky. We know what arsenic has done to many of our union brothers and sisters in the Tacoma smelter and other copper smelters. It was the death of our members which provided the conclusive evidence that arsenic causes lung cancer.” He pushed for the industry to adopt the best available technology, not just the technology Asarco said it could afford.
Despite their concerns about the potential health impacts from ASARCO’s emissions, many Ruston residents took positions that supported the company, citing their concern that the smelter would close and jobs would be lost. Sherri Forch was one of the Ruston residents who testified, as she puts it, “for the smelter”. She explained, “I recognized the need for the jobs and the uniqueness of what our town is and how devastating it would be should we lose that…”
The rounds of meetings and discussions were followed by more formal hearings a few months later in November 1983. About 150 people, representing a range of views and organizations, offered their perspectives. These ranged from concerns for jobs, health, environment, and the next generation to corporate accountability. One of the most vexing features of the Tacoma Process for many observers and participants was the way the jobs-versus-health script was continually repeated or exaggerated, enabling ASARCO to keep a low profile while the more visible combatants went at each other.
Asarco did appear in force, however, for the hearings. The company had already questioned EPA’s risk estimates and it offered five expert witnesses, who rolled out different estimates, with a more comforting “margin of safety.” According to Asarco’s witnesses the company: (1) was already in compliance with the Clean Air Act; (2) would/might support EPA’s newly proposed standards; (3) opposed more stringent standards that addressed ambient exposure; (4) could not reduce emissions further; and (5) because of economic realities (a depression in the copper industry) would not take on additional expenditures beyond the predictable BAT (Best Available Technology) formula. In the end, it wasn’t clear what Asarco would do in response to EPA and community efforts to constrain emissions even though its Ruston/Tacoma plant had the highest arsenic emissions in the country. And so the process convened to formulate public health protections through an arsenic standard dragged on.
Analysis, memory and conversation about the Tacoma Process runs the gamut, from praise for its open, messy, democratic and inclusive elements, to scorn for the false choice it foisted on the public. Yet even while workers, residents, environmentalists and public agencies struggled to voice their concerns, listen to one another, and imagine solutions to a dilemma that seemed all but unresolvable, Asarco was moving towards a decision to close the plant.
Baird, Brian. “Tolerance for Environmental Health Risks: The Influence of Knowledge, Benefits, Voluntariness and Environmental Attitudes,” Risk Analysis 6:4 (1986), 425-35.
Krimsky, Sheldon & Alonzo Plough, Environmental Hazards: Communicating Risk as a Social Process, Dover, MA: Auburn House, 1988.
Scott, Esther, “The Risks of Asarco,” in Gutman & Thompson’s Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments, Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1997.
Sirianni, Carmen, “The Tacoma Smelter and EPA: EPA Brings Community Deliberation to Jobs versus Environment Dispute in Tacoma,” in
Aerial photograph of Asarco smelter used by permission of the Tacoma Library
In 1982 ASARCO announced its decision to close the Ruston smelter. Although rumors had circulated in the community for some time, the announcement caught everyone off-guard. Chuck O’Donahue, business agent for the Steelworkers union local, remembers sitting in his office when he received a call from the local newspaper, the Tacoma News Tribune.
I’m sitting in my office and the phone rings, and it’s the News Tribune, that says they were looking to get my reaction to the plant closure announcement…And I says, “What plant closure announcement are you taking about?” And he says, “You’re the business agent for Asarco, aren’t you?” I says, “Yah.” And he says, “Oops, I’m sorry.” And he hangs up the phone…Someone let the cat out of the bag. The press release Asarco had sent out went to the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the NewsTribune, TV stations… They mailed it to everybody but us.
So at 12:00 we gathered everybody outside in the parking lot and [Larry Lindquist, the Plant Manager] made his announcement then. And the whistle went off at 12, and it was the ungodliest sound you ever heard.
The company had promised the union it would remain in operation for at least two years while a dislocated workers program was established, and employees had time to retrain. Using a combination of company, government and union funding, most workers were able to go through a retraining program, or find a new job. Chuck O’Donahue is proud of the process he helped develop to support the workers’ transitions. He estimates that of the 735 employees working at the plant in 1982, 713 found jobs.
We involved the whole family. We would hold Sunday afternoon…rallies…bring the family out, talk to them…’We know what your concerns are. What’s going to happen to my automobile? What’s going to happen to my house? ‘We established a food bank for people who were really in need of it…
Now during this Dislocated Workers program, we had no foreclosures…we had no lost automobiles, or repossessions or anything like that.
Some residents found jobs locally, but others moved away in search of jobs and opportunity. The plant closure seemed to sever the tie that many in Ruston felt to the community and the region. Ruston was thrown into crisis, as its main—and virtually only—source of work and resources disappeared. Sherri Forch said,
When the smelter closed, we lost a whole generation of young people. There were no jobs to aspire to after graduation. They either had to go into the military or go someplace else for work.
At the conclusion of the EPA hearings, in 1983, the ASARCO site, the entire town of Ruston, and the northern edge of the city of Tacoma, abutting Ruston, were declared a Superfund site due to “widespread contamination of the water, sediments, and upland areas,” primarily arsenic, lead, cadmium and copper in soil, air, groundwater, sediments and surface water. Over a period of more than 20 years the EPA supervised the demolition of ASARCO’s buildings, the testing of soils on the ASARCO site, and the testing and replacement of soils yard soils in Ruston and North Tacoma. Most Ruston residents had their yards replaced, including extensive their gardens. Many Ruston residents were proud of their yards and gardens; many people enjoyed gardening and eating the vegetables and fruits they raised. Sherri Forch was one of the Ruston residents whose yard was completely dug up and replaced.
They came in with bulldozers and earthmovers and here in the backyard, they went down 3 feet. You can still see the roots of the apple tree they disturbed. They…would go down 6 inches and take it out to the trailer and test it. If there was still contaminant, they would go down another 6 inches and test it and go down another 6 inches…we got probably, market value, $40,000 worth of landscaping.
They were very responsible about replacing the greenery. Unfortunately they were not so responsible about their fill dirt. It was completely sterile. There was no organic material in it whatsoever. And nothing grew.
Today, Sherri’s garden is lush and green, with dahlias, roses, and seasonal vegetables growing in profusion. But it took years to once again build up the soil, and create the richly fertile environment her garden needed. Sherri also uses pesticides now for the first time since moving to Ruston almost 40 years ago. She jokes that the arsenic in Ruston’s air must have killed the insects that prey on her vegetables and flowers. Since the smelter closed, she says, she regularly finds earwhigs on her dahlias.
The Ruston School was closed, and children were sent to nearby Tacoma to attend school. ASARCO’s buildings were gradually demolished. In 1992, the ASARCO smokestack was dynamited. Sherry remembers:
It was a beautiful day in February; Commencement Bay was just—boats, you probably could have walked across the water for the boats. And even the Vashon Island ferry detoured over into Commencement Bay and waited there so the people on the ferry boat could watch this.
…And it just rumbled and then it tipped, and this huge cloud of dust…It was there all my life … I still miss it. It still should be there.
A key turning point in the prolonged remediation process occurred when the EPA agreed to house ASARCO’s most contaminated soils in an onsite containment facility (OCF). Soils from theASARCO site, and from an old ASARCO plant in Everett were placed inside a giant container which is purported to be capable of withstanding earthquakes and other natural disasters in perpetuity. The amount of arsenic in the Everett soils now stored in the OCF is are estimated to be as much as 25%.
The town of Ruston struggled on, surviving on a $100,000 yearly grant from ASARCO, which funded basic municipal services–until the company declared bankruptcy in 2005.
25 years later, public health and environmental concerns linger on in the region. State testing shows that ASARCO’s contamination extends for over 1,000 square miles, and reaches into four counties.ASARCO has moved on, shifted its form and sustained its operations in other parts of the US and globally. But it has left its mark on the local community. Chuck O’Donahue argues that this is standard practice for ASARCO.
- Interview with Chuck O’Donahue, Ruston, WA. May 2006
- Interview with Sherri Forch, Ruston, WA. July 2006