Under the Stack

Our documentary film, Under the Stack, is just completed. We hope to be making it available soon. Here’s a brief preview of the film and what environmental justice advocates are saying about it:

Under the Stack: a Documentary Film by Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson

 Under the Stack documents the efforts of three communities to answer one urgent question: what has made people in our community sick?

What El Paso, Texas; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Hayden, Arizona have in common is their long-standing relationship with one corporation: ASARCO, the American Smelting and Refining Company. Founded in the late 19th century, ASARCO was one of the first multinationals in the U.S. Company towns grew up around the mines and smelters, and generations of families looked to ASARCO for jobs while struggling with the company over health and safety. In the late 1990’s, under investigation for unsafe working conditions and toxic emissions, ASARCO closed many of its plants. In 2005 the company entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing environmental liabilities estimated at $11 billion as the primary cause.

A Chapter 11 bankruptcy is designed to negotiate down a company’s debts and liabilities in order to stay in production and increase profits. ASARCO had over 90 polluted sites in the U.S. alone. The company emerged from bankruptcy 4 years later, after agreeing to pay $1.79 billion in remediation costs. Now relieved of liabilities, ASARCO is profitable, while its new parent company, GRUPO MEXICO, is one of the largest copper producers in the world. Meanwhile, workers and community members in the U.S. continue to struggle with ASARCO, and GRUPO MEXICO has been linked to severe safety violations and contamination of local rivers in Mexico, as well as the death of 65 workers at its Pasta de Conchos mine.

What’s happening is a strategy of polluters who have enormous environmental liabilities…it’s a strategy that will be used over and over by companies across the U.S. and the world. The bankruptcy courts will play out this environmental saga; this is the very first one.            

Eliot Shapleigh, former State Senator, El Paso, Texas

During ASARCO’s bankruptcy, former workers and residents in El Paso, Corpus Christi and Hayden began to challenge company practices and do research that connected their health problems to its toxic emissions. Under the Stack documents their efforts to understand the consequences of working at ASARCO and living under the stack. Engaging in citizen research and organizing, with little help from public agencies or experts, people are coming together to learn how ASARCO impacted their communities and demand a response from the company and the government

Why didn’t the government protect us? Why does the government protect ASARCO?                                                                                 

Carlos Rodriguez, former ASARCO worker

Under the Stack is part of a multi-media research and documentation project. Project directors Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson, faculty at The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, began collaborating with ASARCO-impacted communities in 2006. We’ve interviewed workers, residents, public officials, and environmental and social justice activists, and filmed community activities and public meetings. The film is a case study of citizen efforts to challenge corporate abuse. Our project has a website, Their Mines, Our Stories (www.theirminesourstories.org). We’ve published articles on ASARCO’s bankruptcy, and crossed the border to witness and write about struggles for health and safety by Mexican unions and community members at GRUPO MEXICO’s mines.

Responses to Under the Stack:

 Under the Stack is an exciting new film that uses storytelling to describe how corporations take advantage of communities in their pursuit of profits. Real people are poisoned, not in a single community but several communities, not in one workplace but several workplaces, by the same polluter. This film documents through the voices of local victims, how our government turned its back allowing ASARCO to poison workers and destroy communities without being held accountable. This is a  must see film on how one corporation manipulated the system to avoid its responsibilities and liabilities.      

Lois Gibbs, Director, Center for Health, Education and Justice

Under the Stack is a story of community resilience and resistance in the face of corporate power and environmental disregard.  As the tensions between economic growth and public accountability are explored the film becomes a cautionary tale, at once disturbing yet ultimately hopeful, for those determined to make our jobs and communities more safe and sustainable for the next generation.

Michael Silverstein, MD, MPH, Fomer Director, State OSHA Program, WA State Department of Labor & Industries

 ASARCO’s mining and smelting activities contaminated communities in 19 states.  “Under the Stack” tells the stories of workers and families who lived in just three of these communities, but property damage, terrible health problems, and deaths have destroyed the quality of life in others as well.  What is inspiring about this film is its portrayal of the enduring spirit of impacted families and their passion for justice. What is alarming is that Asarco is still actively polluting some American communities.

Doris Cellarius, longtime Sierra Club toxics leader. Ms. Cellarius works with the Blue-Green Alliance to strengthen US laws to protect workers and communities.

A salute is due Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson for persisting in making this film. It tells the story, or at least part of the story, of the impact one company has had on three communities. At times moving and inspiring, the film clearly lays out the ways in which Asarco mined and processed the local ore, used the local workers, polluted the local air, water and soil, made (and continues to make) the local community sick and then left without cleaning up the mess. Activists, workers and community members taking on the company and their government allies are the bright spots in an otherwise bleak picture. Though this story is local, the implications are global, as similar scenarios play out in communities with other names.  

Michael Lax, MD, MPH, Director, Central NY Occupational Health Clinical Center

Under the Stack successfully explores three US communities in El Paso and Corpus Christi, Texas and Hayden, Arizona, struggling to live and work under the toxic legacy of the ASARCO Corporation. In powerful voices, former and current ASARCO workers, their families, their union leaders, and their communities, describe the effects of past and current corporate decisions on their lives. As the film explores these struggles, it highlights the many complex connections between their work, home and community environments and between the hopes and dreams of past, current and future generations.

 Under the Stack is a part of the larger project, Their Mines, Our Stories: Work, Environment and Justice in ASARCO-Impacted Communities. The filmmakers, Lin Nelson and Anne Fischel, faculty members at The Evergreen State College in Washington State, have also created a wonderful website resource (http://www.theirminesourstories.org/) with much more information on these issues and communities. I highly recommend this film for all interested in occupational and environmental health, environmental justice, labor and community organizing and the history of these fields and of these communities.

Mark Catlin, Occupational Health and Safety Director, Service Employees International Union; Historic Workplace & Environmental Health and Safety Films

Under the Stack is the story of three communities impacted by ASARCO, a transnational mining, smelting and refining corporation. Describing how it released massive amounts of pollution and the effects on the workers and people of Corpus Christi and El Paso in Texas and Hayden, Arizona, this documentary reveals the human costs of environmental contamination and corporate greed. But this is not merely a story about helpless victims; it is also shows the strength of the individuals and families affected and how the communities organized themselves to protest the harm inflicted on them. Under the Stack is a powerful film about environmental health, social injustice, corporate irresponsibility and the power of community.

Kate Davies M.A., D.Phil., The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement, Clinical Associate Professor, School of Public Health, University of Washington

A haunting and cautionary tale about a modern day monster, a toxic spewing menace unaccountable for the costs  and suffering of communities that lived and worked in its shadow. Ultimately this is a parable of the tragedy of our day and the monsters created by greed. Communities facing extreme energy extraction and other emerging polluters must heed this tale of loss and deception so we don’t look back in another hundred years and know that we repeated the history of Asarco.

Carolyn Raffensperger, Executive Director, Science and Environmental Health Co-Founder, Women’s Congress for Future Generations

Under the Stack documents the cavalier behaviors of mega-corporation ASARCO and the inspiring resilience of those exposed to its deadly pollutants.  It culminates in the questions about democracy we need to be asking.  “Somewhere along the line, everything got backwards,” an activist notes near the end of the film. Instead of protecting workers and communities, government agencies serve ASARCO and other corporations, he points out.  Viewers should ask themselves why that is, and what we will do to create the democracy we need.  I recommend Under the Stack as a compelling review of a classic environmental justice struggle that heralds the courage and power we have to have to ultimately triumph.

Carol Dansereau, Environmental activist and attorney who worked for decades with farm worker families poisoned by pesticides and other communities fighting for justice. Recipient of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Public Justice Award.  Author of, Defeating the Giant. How to End Injustice and Heal the Planet, forthcoming

Contact Information:

Anne Fischel (fischela@evergreen.edu)

Lin Nelson (nelson@evergreen.edu)

“Their Mines, Our Stories” (www.theirminesourstories.org)

Northport, WA: Researching Illness on the Upper Columbia River

Although our project has focused on a small number of ASARCO-impacted communities, we’ve also been fortunate to connect with communities who are engaged in similar struggles–although with different mining and smelting companies. This page is devoted to Northport, Washington, a small community of less than 400 people in northeast Washington State. We recently spent a weekend in Northport to screen our documentary, Under the Stack, and meet with community activists and researchers from Citizens for a Clean Columbia (CCC). The community is in the midst of an impressive effort to document the impacts of pollution emitted by TECK, a large lead and zinc smelter located a few miles upriver in Trail, British Columbia, Canada.

Residents of Northport are experiencing disturbingly high levels of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s, two rare forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Their blog, https://northportproject.com/, maintained by local activist Jamie Paparich, chronicles TECK’s activities and the community’s efforts to determine the consequences for Northport. The blog reports on a recent community health study by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard School of Medicine which concluded that “cases of Colitis and Crohn’s diagnosed in Northport residents were 11.5 to 15 times higher than in the general population.” According to the Northport Project website, the researchers say this is the largest IBD cluster they have ever seen. A follow-up study is planned for fall 2016.

Northport Vista photo Northport-vista-best_zpspfgx8a0n.jpg

Northport is located in a valley along the Columbia River, just a few miles south of the U.S.-Canada border. It’s a beautiful area, with rolling green hills, broad pastures, and gorgeous views. In the early 20th century, the Northport Smelter was located here, but it closed in 1922. But as we learned, Northport and its neighbors struggle with the impacts of a century of waste materials dumped into the Columbia River and emitted through its stacks by another smelter, TECK (formerly TECK COMINCO). Arsenic, lead, cadmium and other heavy metals have been found in area soils. In 1999 the Colville Confederated Tribes, whose lands are not far from Northport, requested that the EPA assess contamination in the Upper Columbia River. In 2001 the EPA agreed to conduct preliminary assessments and site inspections at 39 mine and mill sites, including sites in Northport. After finding higher than normal amounts of heavy metals in Northport’s soil, they returned in 2004 to offer yard testing and soil replacement to Northport residents. The Washington State Department of Ecology was designated to advise the EPA on technical issues and environmental clean-up requirements. The State Department of Health was also supposed to review findings that could impact community health (https://yosemite.epa.gov/R10/CLEANUP.NSF/9f3c21896330b4898825687b007a0f33/f19e164188a9e53088256e170008610d/$FILE/leroi%20FAQs.pdf).

This process also found hazardous waste contamination in Upper Columbia River sediments, including cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, zinc, dioxins and furans, and fish advisories were issued for a variety of Columbia River species.

In 2005 the Colville Confederated Tribes, joined by the EPA and the State of Washington, sued TECK for damages to the Columbia River caused by a century of dumping waste materials (slag). The suit was finally concluded in 2012, when Judge Lonny Suko of the U.S. District Court in Yakima ruled that TECK is liable under U.S. environmental law. In his ruling, the Judge stated, “for decades TECK leadership knew its slag and effluent flowed…downstream…but neverthleless TECK continued discharging wastes into the Columbia River.” The EPA has already begun clearing polluted sediments, but the suit gives the U.S. agency the power to force TECK to fund the cleanup (http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/colville-tribes-win-long-running-environmental-lawsuit-against-teck-metals-183585251.html).

Northport has experienced what community researcher and advocate Jamie Paparich calls “a perfect storm of events” that fuels a quest to understand how the impacts of long-term smelter contamination may have affected the health of many of its citizens. Northport is only a few miles from the border with British Columbia. Because the river rounds a bend just before reaching Northport and slows down, smelter slag was deposited on the community’s beaches, where children regularly swam in the summer. One beach was known as the “Black Sand Beach,” and residents tell of playing in the black stuff when they were children (https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/gsp/Sitepage.aspx?csid=2036). Toxic air emissions crossed the U.S.-Canada border and were trapped in Northport’s valley. The emissions were particularly concentrated along Northport’s Mitchell Road, creating what the EPA has called a “heavy fallout zone”. Today, the residents of Mitchell Road are among those most affected by disease. Community members are seeking to understand if there are connections between the toxic smelter emissions and the illnesses that plague them, as well as the long-term consequences to their environment.

Ulcerative colitis creates inflamation and ulcers in the colon and rectum. It is painful and debilitating, and can be life-threatening. Crohn’s disease can occur in any part of the GI tract, including the mouth, esophagus, liver, stomach, colon and anus. Both diseases are thought to result from a combination of inherited genes, vulnerabilities in the immune system and environmental impacts. Both can be treated, but neither has a cure.

The Northport Project website chronicles the attempts by the Washington State Department of Ecology and the EPA to monitor and curb Teck’s emissions. One concern raised by Northport activists is that air monitoring tests conducted by the Department of Ecology from 1992-98 showed elevated levels of arsenic and cadmium. Jamie reports that Teck obtained a new permit “based on the condition that TECK continued to monitor Northport’s air quality and update Ecology quarterly.” But, she adds, “If TECK has an air monitor, in or near, Northport, they are not sharing the data with anyone.” The Northport researchers have since discovered that TECK maintained a monitor in Northport until 2006. The results show that arsenic and cadmium continued to be “way above safety standards and risk-based concentrations.” (for further information, please see: “Air Monitoring in Northport, parts I, II and III” on the Northport Project website.

During our visit we were fortunate to be able to meet with members of the Citizens for a Clean Columbia group, including Joe Wickman, who currently offers technical support to the EPA, Bob Jackman, whose research has been critical to understanding the science and law of pollution that crosses jurisdictional boundaries, and Jamie Paparich. We also conducted a videotaped interview with Jamie, Rosemarie Phillips, Julie Sowards and Rose Kalamarides, all residents of Mitchell Rd., “the heavy fallout zone.”

The interview is available here.

To learn more about Northport, see:

The Northport Project: https://northportproject.com/

“Superfund: US law’s reach at heart of epic cross-border cleanup fight”  Jeremy Jacobs, November 24, 2015  www.eenews.net/stories/1060028510

“Study shows elevated rate of bowel disease in Washington town downstream of B.C.’s Trail Smelter”  Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun August 14 2012



One Morphing Corporation, Many Communities

ASARCO is one of the oldest US-based multi-national corporations. During its more than 120-year history, the company has owned mines in Mission, Ray and Silver Bell, Arizona; Butte, Troy, Black Pine and Mike Horse, Montana; Knoxville, Tennessee; Glover, Missouri; Garfield, Utah; Tar Creek, Oklahoma; Leadville, Colorado; Ground Hog, New Mexico; and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, among others.

ASARCO has owned smelting and refining operations in Hayden, Arizona; El Paso and Amarillo, Texas; East Helena, Montana; Garfield and Murray, Utah; Selby, California; Denver, Colorado; Perth Amboy, New Jersey; Baltimore, Maryland; Bunker Hill, Idaho; and Omaha, Nebraska.

ASARCO also had international holdings and investments in Mexico, Peru, Australia, Chile, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Newfoundland, Canada, West Africa, the Congo, and Saudi Arabia.

Grupo Mexico began as an ASARCO subsidiary, Industria Minera Mexico, S.A. Through a complex reorganization process, ASARCO was sold to Grupo Mexico is 1999; Grupo Mexico purchased ASARCO’s lucrative Peruvian subsidiary, Southern Peru Copper, in 2002. Grupo Mexico lost control of ASARCO when ASARCO declared bankruptcy in 2005. In 2009 Grupo Mexico regained control of ASARCO. Grupo Mexico now controls some of the largest and wealthiest mines in the world, and is ranked as the third largest copper producer globally.

This timeline is a work in progress. We’ve focused on the communities with which we’ve had the most contact and that we’ve learned the most about. We welcome new submissions about communities that have lived and worked with ASARCO, Grupo Mexico or any of their corporate offshoots.

Early History

1887   Lead smelter constructed on the Texas/New Mexico/Mexico border, just above the Rio Grande River

1889    The Guggenheim family founds the Philadelphia Smelting and Refining Company in Pueblo, Colorado. The plant smelts ore high in zinc—often rejected by other companies because of its contaminated slag.

1890   Mexican ruler Porforio Diaz grants the Guggenheims the right to create the “Great National Mexican Smelting Company” which establishes a lead smelter in Monterrey and a lead/copper smelter in Aguascalientes, Mexico. The Mexican government stations armed troops on the Monterrey site to prevent unrest. Over time the Guggenheims purchase more mines and construct or purchase railways to open northern Mexico to development.

1898   Henry Rogers, instrumental in forming the Standard Oil Company trust organizes the Amalgamated Copper Company to acquire “all the principal smelting works in the U.S. with the exception of the Guggenheims” Later, needing capital, Rogers approaches the Guggenheims, who demand control of the developing trust.

1899   Rodgers and his partners create the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), organized under the laws of New Jersey (laws known to be particularly favorable to industrial monopolies), with ownership of refineries in Nebraska, Illinois, Colorado, and Kansas; mines in Colorado and Mexico; and smelters in Colorado; El Paso, Texas, El Carmen, Mexico, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

1901   ASARCO averts a catastrophic war with the Guggenheims, who take control of the company, acquiring 50% of ASARCO’s stock.

Era of Expansion

1902   ASARCO expands, building lead smelters at Murray, Utah and Chihuahua, Mexico. The company acquires mines and future mineral rights in Idaho, invests in zinc mining and production and purchases a smelter in Everett, Washington.

1905  ASARCO purchases the Tacoma smelter. The town surrounding the plant is incorporated as Ruston, Washington.

1905-1910  ASARCO continues to expand. Besides acquiring mines with deposits of zinc, lead, and silver, the company also invests in non-ferrous metals, primarily copper. , Asarco purchases mines and constructs a copper smelter in Arizona, builds a zinc plants in Texas, purchases the Selby, California lead smelter and refinery and a Baltimore copper refinery, and builds copper smelters in Garfield, Utah, and Hayden, Arizona.

1906   Mexican miners strike for equality against the Cananea Consolidated Copper company, owned by William Greene. The strike is put down by Arizona vigilantes, supported by President Diaz. This event is known throughout Mexico as the uprising that sparked the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

1907  ASARCO becomes a publicly held company.

1909   Hayden, Arizona founded as a company town to provide housing for workers supporting mining and smelting operations. ASARCO and Kennecott build side-by-side copper smelters in Hayden.

1910  El Paso smelter expanded to produce copper.

1910  Solano County, California sues ASARCO on behalf of local farmers, asserting that sulfur dioxide emissions are destroying their crops. The lower court grants an injunction against Asarco and the California Supreme Court sustains it. The Court appoints the Selby Smelter Commission which concludes that the plant can operate without hurting crops if it limits SO2 emissions to 30 tons/day.

ASARCO establishes an agricultural research laboratory which conducts extensive experiments, fumigating agricultural plots with SO2. The company concludes that high smokestacks will do a better job dispersing emissions over a larger area—this becomes Asarco’s solution to concerns voiced about emissions for the next 70 years. The company constructs tall stacks at Murray, Selby, and Tacoma (and later, in El Paso, East Helena and Hayden).

1910-1940   ASARCO purchases mines in five new areas of Mexico, invests in copper mines in Chile, and tests for metal in Colombia, Venezuela, the West Indies, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Nicaragua and Brazil, eventually forming a Peruvian mining company as a wholly owned subsidiary and mining intensively in Bolivia. ASARCO also invests in mines in Canada, Australia, West Africa and Saudi Arabia.

1950’s  An El Paso pharmacist, Joe Piñon, attempts to set up a Poison Control Center in El Paso to address ASARCO contamination, but the plan is quietly squelched by the El Paso business community.

1954  ASARCO develops its first open-pit copper mine at Silver Bell, Arizona.

1955  ASARCO purchases the Kennecott smelter in Hayden.

1955  Hayden incorporated; named the year’s All-American City.

1960  Southern Peru Copper Corporation, in which ASARCO has a major stakeholder interest, opens the lucrative Toquepala mine and Ilo smelter in Peru.

Corporate Challenges/Community Resistance

1965  ASARCO constructs an 800-foot smokestack in El Paso. The company says the stack will “diffuse objectionable emissions.”

1967  Under pressure from the Mexican government, ASARCO’s Mexican mines and plants are reorganized as Asarco Mexicana. 51% of interest in the new company is sold to Mexican investors.

1970  Passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act.

1972  Rank and file workers at the Ruston, Washington plant publish the first issue of The Smelterworker. The newspaper highlights research by Dr. Samuel Milham of the Washington State Health Department on children’s exposure to industrially produced arsenic in Ruston.

1972  Dangerously high blood lead levels are discovered in children living in Smeltertown, below the El Paso, Texas smelter smokestacks. A team of researchers and physicians, led by Dr. Philip Landrigan, conclusively establish high levels of lead contamination emanating from the smelter. In areas with high levels of lead in soil, air and dust, children are shown to be breathing in and ingesting lead particles. Dr. Landrigan’s team demonstrates that the lead-poisoned children have irreversible damage to brain development even at sub-clinical levels. ASARCO settles out of court, establishing a trust fund for the lead-impacted children and promising to install new equipment to curb emissions. Smeltertown is destroyed.

1972-73  ASARCO constructs acid plants at a cost of $50, in Ruston, Hayden and El Paso, to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. The company calls the acid plants “tangible evidence of ASARCO’s dedication to improved air quality.”

1974  Asarco Mexicana is reorganized as Industrial Minera Mexicano. 15% of Asarco’s interest is sold to Mexican investors, reducing equity to 34%.

1975  Ruston plant manager, Armand Labbe, attends hearings of the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Washington, DC and testifies that if the government creates new standards for arsenic emissions, the plant will have to close.

1978  Asarco Mexicana is reorganized as Grupo Industrial Minera Mexico, listed on the Mexican Stock Exchange as GIMMEX).

1980  Superfund enacted into law.

1980  The EPA declares the ASARCO smelter site and the entire community of Ruston part of the Commencement Bay-Near Shore Tidelands Superfund site.

1981  El Paso zinc plant shut down.

1985  El Paso lead plant shut down.

1980’s-1990’s: Under pressure from government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, ASARCO begins closing aging plants, including the Ruston/Tacoma copper smelter and the Globe, Colorado, cadmium plant. ASARCO’s facilities and neighboring communities in Tacoma, Colorado, Omaha and Montana are declared Superfund sites by the EPA. ASARCO is required to invest millions in remediating area soils, including yards. In Ruston demolition of smelter buildings begins and the EPA launches the “Tacoma Process” whereby the Ruston community is asked to participate in establishing local exposure levels for arsenic.

1986  ASARCO purchases the Ray, Arizona copper mine from Kennecott.

1988-1990  Forced to privatize national resources, the Mexican government auctions off the historic Cananea mine and concentrator and the nearby Nacozari mine, Mexicana de Cobre. GIMMEX acquires the concession to operate the historic Cananea mine and concentrator for $525 million with a commitment to invest an additional $400 million; the company also acquires concessions for the Caridad and Nacozari mines.

1988  Asarco creates Encycle, a waste treatment facility in Corpus Christi.

1989  Asarco announces decision to end involvement in coal mining.

1989  In Hayden the Steelworkers discover and publicize ASARCO’s systematic under-reporting of Hispanic workers’ health results. Willie Craig, President of Local 881 creates an investigative committee and issues a report, Arsenic and Asarco: The Right to Know, the Right to Live.

1999  ASARCO suspends operations in El Paso—the plant is placed on “care and maintenance status.”

1994  GIMMEX becomes GRUPO MEXICO.

1995  ASARCO purchases an additional 10.7% interest in Southern Peru Copper Corporation, increasing its holdings to 63%.

1997  The Mexican government auctions off railroads, which are acquired by Grupo Mexico and other investors.

1997  In Hayden, Arizona, Betty Amparano is asked to sign a lease releasing her landlord from liability for toxic dust. Amparano takes her children for blood tests and discovers her children have blood lead levels over four times the level at which children are known to suffer brain damage. A local environmental group, Don’t Waste Arizona, helps the community to prepare a class-action lawsuit against ASARCO. Community members knock on doors, distribute surveys and help to collect information about diseases prevalent in the community. The illnesses identified include heart disease, cancers, lung diseases, stillbirths, birth defects, asthma and lead poisoning. By 1999 250 people, about a quarter of the population, sign on to the class action lawsuit.

1998  The Department of Justice and EPA discover that ASARCO has been illegally transporting hazardous waste from Department of Defense chemical weapons storage sites from its waste treatment facility, Encycle, to its El Paso and East Helena smelters for incineration. A legally binding consent decree requires ASARCO to pay millions of dollars in fines, modernize its remaining plants and improve working conditions and safety procedures.

1999  Grupo Mexico acquires ASARCO for $2.2 billion.

1999  Grupo Mexico closes the Workers Clinic in Cananea.

1999  ASARCO suspends operations at the El Paso, Texas smelter.

2002  Grupo Mexico, ASARCO’s former subsidiary, purchases ASARCO’s lucrative Southern Peru Copper Corporation for $2.5 billion. This acquisition makes Grupo Mexico the third largest copper producer in the world. The Justice Department warns that ASARCO may be contemplating bankruptcy and requires ASARCO to set up a $100 million trust fund for existing environmental obligations.

2002  ASARCO applies to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to renew its air permit at the El Paso smelter. Senator Eliot Shapleigh leads a community march to El Paso City Hall to demand that the smelter remain closed. Get the Lead Out, a community coalition, is formed to fight the re-opening of the smelter.

2005  Through a stock swap, Southern Peru Copper Corporation acquires Minera Mexico, Grupo Mexico’s mining division. SPCC becomes Southern Copper Corporation. Grupo Mexico’s railroad division acquires the railroad company, Ferrosur, expanding its control of Mexican transportation networks.

2005  Grupo Mexico cuts retiree and health benefits for U.S. workers. The United Steelworkers, Asarco’s main union at its Ray Mine and Hayden smelter, vote to strike. Members of Section 65 of the Mexican National Union of Mine and Metalworkers, known as Los Mineros of Cananea cross the border to join Steelworkers rallies and express their solidarity with the strikers.

2005  ASARCO declares Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing environmental liabilities as a primary cause. The company has 90+ sites in the United States alone where closures/cleanups are an issue, and 22 Superfund sites.

2006  The Hayden, Arizona smelter roof collapses.

2006  An explosion at Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos mine kills 65 miners. Napoleon Gomez, national president of Los Mineros calls the explosion, “industrial homicide.” In retaliation, the government files trumped-up charges against Gomez, forcing him to flee Mexico for Canada, where he becomes a guest of the Steelworkers.

2006  The last building on the ASARCO/Tacoma site is demolished. The site is sold to a local developer, MC Construction, to build a high-end mix of resident homes, condominiums and commercial buildings.

2006  Heather McMurray, an El Paso, Texas, environmental activist, breaks the story of Asarco’s illegal incineration of hazardous waste. The story is published in the New York Times.

2006  A study by Michael Ketterer of Northern Arizona University links lead isotopes from El Paso, Anapra, New Mexico and Ciudad Juarez to Asarco’s ore from the Santa Eulalia mine in Mexico.

2006 Richard Schmidt, the Corpus Christi federal judge overseeing the bankruptcy process, removes Grupo Mexico from control of ASARCO, replacing it with a board of creditors that includes the United Steelworkers. The Steelworkers sign a new contract with ASARCO that gives them input into company decision-making and protects health and retiree benefits.

2007  Sterlite (Vedanta), a London-based mining company with assets in India and Africa, offers to purchase ASARCO.

2007  The EPA releases its first reports of contamination in Hayden and Winkleman, Arizona, and asks the Arizona governor to list Hayden as a federal Superfund site.

2007  The Mineros of Cananea strike against Grupo Mexico over health and safety conditions in the mine and community. Steelworkers from Arizona organize solidarity visits and aid for the striking miners of Cananea.

2008  Grupo Mexico closes Ronquillo Hospital, the last public medical resource in Cananea.

2008  The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality awards ASARCO its air permit to re-open operations in El Paso. Commissioner Soward reflects on the decision, saying, “Until the Texas legislature changes the very specific provision that they have adopted for air permit renewals, we have to comply with it…we really have no choice.”

2008  ASARCO agrees to pay $4.8 million to the Hayden class action litigants. Legal fees take 80% of the settlement.

January 2008  EPA sponsors informational meetings in Hayden; residents receive reports of yard testing; 15 homes are listed for emergency clean-up of arsenic, lead, copper and chromium.

April 2008  EPA, ASARCO and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality reach agreement that ASARCO will administer and fund the clean-up in Hayden, including soil removal and replacement in affected yards. There will be no Superfund listing.

2008-2009  Sterlite and Grupo Mexico engage in a bidding war for ASARCO.

February 2009  ASARCO announces plans to close the El Paso plant permanently.

November 2009  ASARCO emerges from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is returned to Grupo Mexico.

June 2010  The Mexican courts dissolve the collective bargaining relationship between los Mineros and Grupo Mexico. This allows the government to send thousands of federal police to break the strike. The mine is returned to Grupo Mexico’s control; the company offers to rehire strikers if they will accept severance benefits and join a company union. The majority of union workers have refused.

Labor’s Place in Community History

The Past is Never Over

Mining, refining and the smelting of ore into metals are at the foundation of industrial development. Mining is one of the most rough-and-tumble areas of the economy – financially volatile, environmentally damaging, and demanding and dangerous for workers. The expansion and settlement of the West and the US industrial base were shaped by the operations of the great mining interests. The “lead trust” and the “copper barons” set some of the toughest terms for employment as mining was cultivated across the from the 19th century into the early 20th. Many communities grew out of the staking of claims, the discoveries of valuable ores and their magnetic pull on working people.

In this project we’ve been learning quite a bit about the labor features of the Asarco story – the early working conditions, the risks, the emergence of unions at mining and smelting sites and the volatile and complex relations between labor, community and owners/managers. We don’t know all of these stories deeply and thoroughly. Each community/worksite is in a way its own universe, with its own history of labor strife and triumph, even while it’s connected, either closely or more distantly, to the broader labor movement. As with other aspects of this project, we are finding out how important it is for people to look carefully and critically at their community’s labor story and ensure that past struggles are not forgotten. In a small way, we’re trying to contribute to that recovery of memory, honoring those stories and the strengthening of labor’s position.

In each of the community stories that we’re developing here, we’ve drawn on regional journalism, interviews with labor rank-and-file and leaders, and local history to learn how labor connects to environment, community, economy and social justice. In the Community Stories section, we offer reports and stories from present-day labor advocates, smelter workers and miners, injured workers, and retirees. In this section, in addition to these community-based stories, we offer more focused commentary on labor’s story, both within and across communities, as unions have shaped strategy dealing with ASARCO, the resource economy and national labor and economic policy.

Labor’s Place in Community History: Ruston, Hayden and El Paso

Asarco-Ruston, WA: Workers Pouring CopperAsarco-Ruston, WA: Workers Pouring Copper

The communities we have been learning from and with each have a distinctive labor story. Ruston, Washington was created for the express purpose of metal smelting. The smelter was build out on the edge of a peninsula at the far reaches of the emerging city of Tacoma, in the late 1890s during Tacoma’s boom years. Inaccessible except by boat for several decades, the smelter community, a classic company town, drew Eastern European and Welsh immigrants to what was then an isolated production site. Ores were shipped in from the Philippines and the Western interior to what quickly became one of the major production landmarks on the Pacific coast. Workers lived in bunkhouses, with families eventually arriving to help shape a vital community.

In 1912 ASARCO’s unorganized workers embarked on one of their first recorded strikes, over low wages and long hours. But the next year ASARCO once again cut wages and lengthened working hours. In 1914 there was another strike, as the Western Federation of Miners began organizing Ruston’s smelter workers. The Seattle Hoboes Union pledged that they wouldn’t scab, and the strike earned the support of other unions, with Tacoma’s Longshore Workers refusing to unload ore at the smelter dock. Following this short period of solidarity, the union languished, especially during the war years. But with the challenges of the Depression, the local rechartered as part of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. Smeltermen’s Local 25 quickly grew in strength, gaining support from the vast majority of workers.

Asarco-Ruston. WA-strikeAsarco-Ruston. WA-strike

Local 25 rallied for other major strikes, particularly in 1946 and 1959. Strikes, with all that they demand of workers and their families, shape and challenge a community, often leaving indelible memories. Although Ruston was an isolated company town, it was also a dedicated union town; when the strike was on, the community sustained and honored the solidarity needed to get through hard times. Many of the community elders and former ASARCO workers we’ve talked to in Ruston hold onto those memories, honoring both their union solidarity and the hard industrial life that built their community.

Mine-Mill went through various periods of strain, mirroring tensions between the AFL and CIO, and then within the CIO during the red-baiting years of the late 1940s. It was the target of much red-baiting as ASARCO and other mine owners, the National Labor Relations Board and the courts together worked to demonize the union. Mine-Mill was expelled from the CIO in 1950 for refusing to rid itself of leaders or rank and file members who were alleged to be Communists. By the 1960’s, the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers union had been weakened financially and politically. During the 1950s and 1960s, the union also confronted challenges from the United Steelworkers union, which was trying to displace Mine-Mill as the union representative of the workforce. In 1967 the Smelter Workers leadership voted to merge with the Steelworkers, a decision that the Ruston local accepted. This marked the end of Mine-Mill’s pre-eminence, while the Steelworkers became a major force in the U.S. labor and economic landscape.

Although the El Paso labor situation went through similar transformations and shifts of union base, what’s distinctive about the El Paso labor story is how ethnic divisions, tensions around immigrant workers and the political significance of the border have all contributed to labor politics. Humberto Silex was a Nicaraguan-born labor activist who became a key figure in the Asarco smelter labor struggle and a celebrated union organizer. Silex fought against the “Mexican wage,” a discriminatory two-tier pay system. His effectiveness as a union leader in the MMSW through the 1930s and 40s led him to be targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice and then systematically blacklisted by virtually all employers in the El Paso area. His anguished story, as well as the systematic discrimination shown toward Mexican and Mexican American workers and their families in Smeltertown (see Community Stories), highlight how ethnocentrism and xenophobia were threaded through the already uphill struggle of working people in the mining/smelting sector of the economy of the Southwest.

aerial-view-ephs-resizedEl Paso-aerial view of ASARCO smelter

In her doctoral dissertation Monica Perales argues that ASARCO’s rise was dependent on “the interplay of immigration, labor and transnational capitalism” and that “the arrival of the railroad and the expansion of mining corporations like ASARCO…created a larger industrial zone of which Mexican workers were an integral part.” The expansion of transnational mining industries “facilitated the formation of a permanent, working class community and promoted the creation of a larger industrial economy defined in part by …ethnic Mexican residents.” It is clear that Mexican migration and settlement in El Paso and other parts of the Southwest helped to build the US industrial economy, even while Mexican-American workers were slotted into a discriminatory wage structure.

The copper mining region of southeast Arizona was also riven by anti-Mexican and anti-labor patterns of discrimination and abuse. In Ray, a valley that was once an underground copper mine, is now fully stripped out as an open pit mine. Three communities once existed in this valley, sharing a common location and employer, while separated from one another by language, ethnicity and national origin. The actual town of Ray was populated only by Anglos. The residents of nearby Sonora were primarily of Mexican ancestry, with some Lebanese-American residents, including the Basha family, founders of what is now a chain of large grocery stores. The third town, Barcelona, was reserved for those who traced their heritage directly back to Spain. Today, the former residents of Sonora still speak of the segregation that ruled their lives. There was little socializing between the communities; each town had its own schools, community pageants and churches. Even the cemetery was segregated; as people told us. “We could not be together even in death.”

In the late 1950’s the underground mine became a vast open-pit mine. As the mine opened and expanded, the three towns were swept away. Some workers and their families moved to the new community of Kearny that had been created for them, while others moved to Hayden. The ores extracted at the Ray mine traveled 17 miles down the road to Hayden, site of two copper smelters owned by Kennecott and ASARCO.

Hayden smelter with two stacksHayden smelter

Hayden, founded in 1910, struggled with its own patterns of racial discrimination. The town was divided into two sections, with Mexican-American workers and their families living in San Pedro, the upper–and poorer–section of town, while white residents, many of whom were smelter managers and white-collar workers, lived in Hayden proper. After World War II some of the rigid boundaries that separated Hispanics from Anglos began to collapse. Mexican-Americans had participated in the U.S. military, and they were not about to accept subordinate status in the town their parents and grandparents had helped to build.

There was discrimination. The Mexican workers and the Anglo workers did the same type of work, but they got paid differently. The Anglos got a dollar more for doing the same work and the same amount of work. And that’s the way the company policy was. In those times discrimination was very strong.

And after the Second World War when the soldiers came back, they put their foot down and said, “Enough is enough.” They fought for their rights and things started getting better.

Frank Torres Amado, retired schoolteacher, Hayden, Arizona

Still, patterns of discrimination persisted in Hayden long after World War II. Some elder residents remember the Ku Klux Klan visiting the community in the 1950s. There is evidence that ASARCO purposefully created health policies for workers that exploited—and allowed the company to profit from–ethnic differences. In 1994 a Steelworkers union local documented and successfully contested ASARCO’s policy of inflating the lung function tests of Hispanic workers by 15%. Long after the legal protections created by the Civil Rights movement, the “Hispanic 15% Rule” targeted and damaged a vulnerable community, abusing medical science and the trust of ASARCO’s workers. (See Community Stories for more on the “Hispanic Factor”.)

When you walk into an old mining/smelting community in the US, you are brushing up against a powerful, dramatic and enduring history. Whether it’s urban El Paso at an international border, or the once remote, now urbanized Ruston transforming into a post-industrial center of affluent condominiums, or the still relatively isolated Hayden AZ – each community has stories that need to be told, and bears the marks of a strained inheritance.

Current Challenges

Our focus is on the predicaments ASARCO’s unions have faced as they try to guide their members through challenging, sometimes traumatizing, shifts in the company’s mode of operating in the world – shifts that involve the company’s name, its gravitational center, its many guises and subsidiaries, its shifting job base and its changing treatment of employees and retirees. In this sense the ASARCO story is not unlike the stories that workers and communities face all over the world as they seek to confront elusive companies that are relocating and redefining themselves, developing new political and legal mechanisms to shirk their social contracts.

In response, labor has had to adopt both offensive and defensive strategies. It has had to become litigious, initiating cases and defending itself in the courts. This is quite different from the body-contact politics of the early twentieth century, especially when we look at the struggles over labor conditions in the minefields and smelter towns. Labor’ unions must now enter a murky arena of politico-legal battles, ranging from conceptual disputes about whether a company has a “right to pollute” to contesting “tort reform” crusades designed to protect companies from claims made by injured workers. In this section we want to show how a transforming company like ASARCO shapes strategies to push community responsibilities, financial burdens and the need for environmental and public health protection back onto labor and labor’s communities—onto families, neighbors and the environment—and we want to show how labor is fighting back.

One example of labor’s new challenges appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2004. The article, “Companies Sue Union Retirees to Cut Promised Health Benefits” presents grim stories of retirees who are being hounded and sued by former employers who want to strip down their benefits. ASARCO is one of the companies featured in the article. In 2003 the company informed retirees that it was raising their health care premiums. Retirees in Arizona were summoned to court. The company suit cited a “duration clause,” claiming it gave ASARCO the right “to amend or terminate the Plans at any time for any reason. even after you retire.” Chuck Yarter, retired Arizona ASARCO miner, was given a letter stating, “As you know the past several years have been very difficult for the copper industry. The continuing low copper prices and escalating medical costs force us to make these changes.” (WSJ, 11/10/04) Essentially, ASARCO was arguing that the “duration clause” allowed it to change the rules for its retirees once a labor contract had expired.

The Steelworkers USW), ASARCO’s key union, along with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the International Chemical Workers, challenged the action taken by the company. The unions pointed to the lucrative pay sustained by top management in contrast to the financial threat posed to retirees; and they argued that “unforeseen circumstances do not justify a breach of contractual obligations to persons on fixed income who can ill afford to pay the costs the company has shifted upon them.” (WSJ, 11/10/04)

A rally in Tucson launched the Solidarity Council for Justice, a coalition that included the Carpenters, Electricians, Machinists, Operating Engineers, Plumbers and Steamfitters, Boilermakers and Teamsters, all unions with members at Asarco. The coalition took the company on over this breach of contract and breach of trust.

A worker from Hayden spoke at the rally:

This company trashes retired workers, working workers, the people who sell them service and parts, the environment and the people who live anywhere near their plants. We’re not going to take this lying down and this isn’t the last time you’re going to see us!” (retrieved from USWA website, 6/24/05)

The workers were joined by Arizona State Senator Peter Rios.

This company has the legal, moral and ethical responsibility to honor its contracts. We are not part of the the Third World and we are not second-class citizens.

Robert Manriquez, USWA Local 5252 president at Asarco’s Ray mining and smelting complex, added:

Younger workers know that if we stand by and let the company run over retirees – some who are our parents and relatives – they’ll come right after us next. It’s that simple. It’s basic. We’re all in this together.

Eventually, over a dramatic period that included ASARCO’s path-breaking bankruptcy, retiree benefits were reinstated.

The threat of benefit-erosion posed by ASARCO was part of a complex array of issues and challenges that have faced the USW and partner unions. Through this period, the unions had to figure out how to deal with a company that was shape-shifting in front of them, and around them. In 1999 ASARCO was “bought” by its offspring, Grupo Mexico; in 2002 it shifted ownership of one of its prize assets – Southern Peru Copper — across the border to Mexico and in the same year it negotiated challenges from the Department of Justice regarding the realignment of its finances. Throughout this complex and less than transparent process, organized labor – specifically the USW – was realigning its political stance to better challenge ASARCO’s athletic company-complex.

Big Picture Labor Movement

By 2000, the USW had grown into a large amalgamated organization, pulling in other unions that sought strength in numbers. Especially significant was the inclusion of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, a path-setter in workplace and environmental health. In 2004-05 this broader union movement began to explore new strategies to strengthen labor communities; it has also played a major role in the formation of broad coalitions and solidarity movements. The USW’s struggles with ASARCO, before and during the four-plus years of its bankruptcy involved several significant efforts.

Fighting Asarco’s “Right to Pollute”

In Arizona, ASARCO sued residents in Hayden and Winkelman who were trying to hold the company accountable for unusually high levels of pollution which posed clear public health risks to the workers and the community. Asarco’s legal assault on residents was based on its claim that its 1912 deed gave the company the right to discharge unlimited amounts of dust, smoke and other contaminants onto the town without incurring any responsibility for damages. The company’s story came down to this: the copper companies got there first; people who settled in the area to work at the mine and smelter did so at their own risk.

Manny Armenta, who was born in Hayden and is now the Sub-District Director for the USW, Region 12, condemned ASARCO’s abuse of the town:

I knew that Asarco was desperate to escape responsibility for its legacy of pollution, but this marks a new low. Citing a nearly century old agreement between two companies to provide legal cover for jeopardizing people’s health is an abuse of our justice system. Asarco’s legal argument of ‘we were here first’ is a slap in the face to the hardworking residents of our communities.

Although some elements of the political right denounce “frivolous lawsuits,” it is clear the law is a tool citizens must be able to use to defend themselves and their communities from corporate abuse. ASARCO has been part of an effort to legislate “tort reform” to stifle and block these democratic routes of redress. ASARCO’s legal maneuvers against retirees and citizens opposing public health hazards pose a fierce threat to workers’ rights, retirees’ rights and the public’s right to a healthy environment. That the union stepped up to defend retirees’ benefits and the rights of townspeople to investigate their environment is a credit to their capacity to shape a broad social justice approach to the needs of the labor movement today.

Fighting the Government’s Dismissive Approach to Community Health in Texas

On occasion the Steelworkers Union has lent its strength to supporting quality environmental health research and community protections. In October 2004 the union discovered that internal EPA documents regarding children’s lead exposure (which the agency attributes to ASARCO’s emissions) were not being used to develop protective measures in the community. By ignoring their own staff scientists and the standards recommended by independent scientists, the EPA was failing the El Paso community. Agency research on 2000 El Paso soil samples and medical testing of area children suggested that the widely agreed-upon 500 parts-per-million lead level should guide cleanup efforts in the area. (While broadly accepted, the 500ppm standard is not universal; in Washington State, the Department of Ecology made 250ppm the action level—the level at which remediation is required. This level is consistent across the state—except in areas of federal jurisdiction, like the Superfund site in Ruston, where 500ppm was negotiated between ASARCO and the EPA).

Despite staff recommendations and wide agreement about safe standards, the EPA, along with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, proposed a more lax 640ppm cleanup level. Diane Heminway, USW Environmental Projects Coordinator, challenged the agencies:

The truth is out. EPA is ignoring its own internal analysis and standards and publicly advocating a less stringent cleanup that will not protect El Paso children from lead poisoning.

Arguing that the EPA was resorting to a highly questionable model, Heminway added,

The key question is, why is EPA using a model that relies on assumptions and guesses when they have real human and environmental data on the community?

Manny Armenta, Sub-District Director, USW Region 12, pointed to the discriminatory features of the EPA/TCEQ approach:

EPA is publicizing October as Children’s Health Month and claims that it is …protecting children from lead poisoning and doing outreach to Hispanic communities. Lead-contaminated areas of El Paso are predominantly Hispanic. So why is the EPA now backtracking on a thorough cleanup?

Armenta added:

EPA recently entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Urban League, in which the EPA expressed its concern about protecting children’s health and providing clean land for all citizens, including socioeconomically disadvantaged ones. Well, EPA backtracking on a thorough cleanup suggests that its commitment to upholding this agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on. It is difficult to believe EPA would ever propose this in a predominantly rich, white community.”

(USWA, October 25, 2004)

In 2005—the year ASARCO declared bankruptcy—the USW continued to challenge the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, calling into question the TCEQ’s review of ASARCO’s air permit. ASARCO closed its El Paso smelter in 1999, and applied for a renewed air permit in 2002—an action that generated intense community discussion and led to the creation of a coalition opposed to the permit that included environmental activists, former ASARCO employees, public officials, and residents of El Paso, Juarez, Mexico and Anapra, New Mexico. Opposition to the permit centered on the dangers of ASARCO’s emissions and its known record of exceeding national health standards. Noting inconsistencies and a weakening of agency protections of the public, the USW aggressively challenged the agencies to take the public’s vulnerability more seriously. In a USW press release, District 12 Director Terry Bonds took a community health protective stance.

Corporations that have been trusted with air pollution permits should be held strictly accountable to the communities where they operate, so we must demand answers to these and other questions before we allow ASARCO the privilege of a renewed permit.

This environmental and community protective position, with its challenge to uphold science and stringent cleanup standards, is somewhat unusual for a US union. It shows how labor can, with sustained research and strategy, help build broader community-environment-workplace linkages. As ASARCO’s complex, opaque bankruptcy progressed, however, the USW, challenged by the economic vulnerability of its members and the grueling legal process of dealing with a morphing, mobile company, moved away from its earlier emphasis on public health. Still, the union’s work in and around Hayden and El Paso reveals the possibility that unions can craft policies, and forge alliances that link economic and environmental justice politics.

Joining Forces with Environmentalists – Going Blue-Green

Around 2004 the USW and other unions began meeting with environmental groups to create the Blue-Green Alliance for “good jobs, clean environment and a green economy.” This merging of labor and environmental issues, formally launched in 2006, is not new. At times the USW has taken a leading role in strategizing with environmental and public health advocates to build a broader movement to hold government and businesses accountable for public health, worker rights, and social justice in the context of environmental health. The Steelworkers were there in 1970 to help launch Earth Day; 29 years later they were instrumental in building the coalition that challenged the WTO in Seattle in 1999. The challenges of building labor-environment coalitions have been persistent over several decades; the movement lurches forward in fits-and-starts, offering an occasional victory, or the intermittent mishap and misunderstanding. Union trainings on the environment, the Toxic Use Reduction Institute work with labor and environmentalists, the analyses developed through New Solutions: A Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health—these are a few signs of the potential for shared analysis and action. The USW has been involved in most of these efforts. It is prominent in the Blue-Green Alliance, which is primarily focused on renewable energy, green jobs and eco-economic sustainability.

The USW has been a critical player in shaping national policy, training, and remediation of environmental hazards through its prominent participation in the national Superfund program. Since the time of Love Canal in the late 1970s, the USW has played a significant role in public hearings, pushing for labor funding, training and participation.

Labor has also pushed for a fair deal for workers, with former Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union activist Tony Mazzochi, promoting a “Superfund for Workers,” or a “just sustainability” in which workers would not suffer job loss, but would be retrained for cleanup and a cleaner economy. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the USW worked with community organizations and workers to offer training and support in cleanup, rebuilding of homes and retooling of infrastructure.

In a fragile economy where union membership is slipping, especially in the private/industrial sector, the USW is making a powerful effort to create a broader labor-environment-health-sustainability connection. This is a serious challenge for this union or any union in our ruptured economy. On the ground, in each community, the labor-environment-health history and conditions vary. It remains a very serious, uneven and mostly unexamined challenge for the USW and other unions to deal with the distinctive needs of local workers. In Hayden, ASARCO’s last operating smelter, workers and community members face the persistent corporate suffocation of their concerns about health and safety hazards. In El Paso, site of ASARCO’s hulking and hazardous smelter skeleton, it’s the challenge of staying connected to rank-and-file workers who are now out of work, injured, ill or on to other jobs. There’s much work to be done for a union which, having endured a complex corporate reorganization, must now address the variety of occupational and environmental risks that labor and its neighbors face. The work continues.

Cross-Border Labor Solidarity and Strategy

From September through December 2005, the USW, IBEW and other unions – all part of the Solidarity Council for Justice – were on strike at ASARCO/Grupo Mexico, provoking “the rumble in copper” in the Southwest. A month into the strike, ASARCO declared bankruptcy. 1500 workers in Hayden, Kearny, Marana and Sahuarita, Arizona, as well as Amarillo Texas, challenged the company over a range of issues: reneging on retirement benefits; refusing to pay earned vacations; changing work policies; workplace hazards; and overall violation of worker rights. The National Labor Relations Board issued complaints against ASARCO for threatening and intimidating workers and refusing to negotiate with union bargaining committees. The USW also objected to the company’s attempts to reject an effective “successor” clause that would oblige a potential purchaser to recognize the union and honor labor agreements.

Terry Bonds, USW Regional Director denounced the company’s plan:

The Company’s so-called successor proposal is absolutely worthless. Our members must have a contract that protects them, their families and their jobs. ASARCO’s owners and creditors only have some of their money at stake. Our members have invested their lives, their blood, sweat and tears, in this company. Our members’ communities, their families and their futures are at risk. We will not gamble with our members’ lives by depending on ASARCO to encourage potential buyers to recognize and deal fairly with them.

(USW website, 9-21-05)

The strike got the attention of many groups – from the Alliance of Retired Americans to the NAACP. Workers walking the picket line not only had to sustain themselves under the usual demands of a strike, they also had to sort out who they were striking against and what ASARCO’s corporate morphing would mean on the grand stage of international labor. Both ASARCO and Grupo Mexico were formidable forces in international copper and the two companies together had amassed a horrific labor/environmental record.

Most importantly, the strike drew the support of the USW’s sister union in Mexico. Los Mineros (the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers) crossed the border for solidarity pickets, and the two unions started to shape a cross-border solidarity movement. The USW and the Mineros understood how porous and malleable the border was for the company, allowing ASARCO/Grupo to relocate company records, rearrange patterns of ownership, and evade corporate accountability, all the while trying to play on the fears of both U.S. and Mexican workers. Instead of letting the company pit them against each other, the USW/Mineros solidarity movement was forged.

Over these past five years, the USW/Mineros link has strengthened. The labor situation is dire in Mexico. Miners in Cananea have been on strike since 2007 against Grupo Mexico’s systematic assault on the contractual protections that safeguarded worker and community health, safety and the environment (see the section on Cananea on this website). Grupo Mexico is notorious for the 2006 Pasta de Conchos mining disaster in which 65 miners were killed. It is also widely distrusted and feared because of its systematic attempts to break union locals in Mexico and replace them with “white” (company) unions. Although the Mexican courts have supported the Mineros’ efforts to maintain the legal legitimacy of the Cananea strike and their union, Mexico’s Ministry of Labor has twice used federal police to break the strike and enforce Grupo Mexico’s agenda. In June 2010, federal police blocked union access to the mine, allowing the company to hire replacement workers; they attacked workers who sought refuge in the union hall, and called for the arrest of union leaders (several of whom have gone underground). At the same time federal police evicted grieving families who have maintained a multi-year vigil at the Pasta de Conchos mine, hoping to recover the bodies of their loved ones. Only two of the 65 bodies have been recovered, and the company has consistently refused to search for others.

In an increasingly complex global context, in which corporations can readily shift resources across borders, the Steelworkers continue to explore possibilities for building cross-national unions. As part of the growing solidarity between the USW and the Mineros, the USW in the US and Canada have provided support and refuge to the exiled leader of the Mineros, Napoleón Gomez Urrútia. According to USW President, Leo Gerard:

Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderon, has launched a reign of terror against working people. Our American union members tax dollars should not be used to support a union busting government in Mexico.

(USW@Work, summer 2010, pg. 20)

The Steelworkers have taken the lead in giving material and political support to the Mexican miners, whose struggle is seen as a tipping point in state/corporate efforts to quell labor across the Americas.

(See section on Cananea for more on the situation for workers, community and environmental health and for the movement for cross-border solidarity.)

(See the section on the Bankruptcy – the Dollars and Sense May 2010 article – for more background on the impact of the bankruptcy and the challenges this poses to the labor movement.)


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USW@Work, Summer 2010 issue. “Reign of Terror in Mexico: Striking Copper Miners Evicted by Police;” “Los Mineros: Why It Matters;” “Los Mineros Greets USW with Applause;” “Solidarity! USW, Los Miners Announce Unification Commission;” “Los Mineros Arrest Warrant Dismissed by Mexican Court;” “Timelines: USW, Los Mineros Build Power Together”

Public Health and the Environment


What moved us to take up this project was our curiosity and concern about the broad public health impacts of one company’s operations – over time, in many places, under different patterns of ownership, and across political administrations. We were haunted by questions: How do we get the measure of a company’s impact on our health and environment? How can we learn to be more attentive, vigilant and effective in determining whether corporations are being accountable, transparent and non-damaging in their operations?

Our project is motivated by the hope that each of us will activate our curiosity and democratic right-to-know in order to protect public health in our communities. Our journey into the consequences of living and working with ASARCO has opened our eyes to how little we know about our corporate neighbors and how they impact us. We’ve also learned that even as people gather information, including clear and undeniable evidence of harm done to them, their neighbors, co-workers and community, that information alone is not effective in holding corporations accountable. We have been witness to and partners with four communities damaged by ASARCO, but there are many more sites in the US and globally that endure public health problems. We hope to continue learning how they are responding to this ongoing, unrelenting challenge. As we focus on the path of one company and the many ways it has affected public health and the environment, we are interested in the work of others who also try to make visible the damage caused by corporations which put profit above community health, safety and well-being. A few mammoth companies – BP, Shell, Exxon, Cargill, Syngenta, WR Grace – have gotten the public’s attention, but there are many more examples of corporate behavior that threaten public health, workplace health and safety, and the environment, and there are many important stories of activists organizing to protect their communities that never achieve public recognition.

Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine demonstrated how the globalizing, corporatized economy either creates or takes advantage of catastrophes that jolt communities, regions or nations. Severe disruptions, whether natural or orchestrated, become opportunities for corporate decision-makers (and in some cases government collaborators) to take advantage of a “softened” and exhausted public. These massive disruptions, from an economic recession or depression to a geologic rupture like an earthquake, or a climatic event like Hurricane Katrina, have consistently been used to weaken the public sphere, provide an open field for corporations, and exacerbate an already uneven playing field.

We agree that shocking disruptions present special opportunities to those in positions of economic power. But over the longer arc of time, there is another process taking place, a more subtle pattern of erosion of land and people. We see this in the legacy of environmental and health impacts from mining and smelting, the foundation of resource extraction and industrial production in the US and virtually all economies. In Appalachia, the Southwest US, Ruston, Washington, Kellogg, Idaho, Libby, Montana, Cananea, Mexico, Northeast Brazil and many other parts of the globe, we find damaged landscapes, polluted air and waterways, and pervasive health issues caused by chronic, persistent exposure to mining contaminants.

As researchers, filmmakers and teachers we are attempting to learn about, document and support the efforts of mining and smelting communities to understand the public and environmental health risks they face and resist further erosion of their rights to health and safety. We are not opposed to mining. Anyone who lives in the modern world and benefits from electricity or mass transportation, or uses a phone or computer would be hypocritical to claim they want to see an end to mining in the US or globally. But many of us are also accustomed to, reliant on and largely sheltered from the trials of the miner, the smelter worker and the communities that live near mines and smelters. We have not seen or experienced the consequences to people and land from more than a century of the aggressive mining and smelting operations that are so central to modern economies. Because mining reigns supreme as an essential bedrock of the world economy, very little has developed in the way of alternative or appropriate technologies, environmental controls, worker protection or economic penalties to counter the damage done by mining and smelting.

We urge people to follow Klein’s call to be attentive and assertively responsive to the “shocks” of the world economy. At the same time we need to cultivate a steady look at what is relentlessly in the background. In public and environmental health, practitioners are taught to monitor, or at least think about changes they observe against some “background,” some baseline of what is considered normal, healthy or ecologically sound. What we are finding is that the “background” is ever moving or receding as certain extractive/industrial activities quietly press on, while those of us who live our lives far from impacted areas pay little attention.

The Movement for Public Health

The very idea of public health is an interesting, although murky, concept to consider. Public health includes the recognition, stimulated early in the 20th century, that we must pay attention to the patterns that link our lives and shape our health. It is not just our individual health that is important, but the patterns, often ignored or poorly understood, that connect our lives. The launching of public health as a field and a public agenda in the US and other countries was a call to all of us, not just to reimbursed practitioners and pedigreed providers. It was an urgent call to learn to think about and act on the patterns around us. In some cases these patterns are visible and obvious, but in others they are much more difficult to see.

triangle-fire-funeral-processionFuneral procession for victims of Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

At the turn of the last century, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City jolted public attention and focused awareness on the conditions in which workers labor, the buildings they inhabit, and the engines of production (in that case clothing) that can lead to high risk or certain death. On March 25, 1911 over 100 young immigrant workers, mostly women, some no older than 15, died in that fire, on the ninth floor of a building with locked exit doors. Twenty years later, hundreds of mostly African-American workers who were building the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel through Gauley Mountain in West Virginia were killed, not by fire, but by breathing in the silica made airborne by drilling and digging. The workers were not given any masks or equipment to protect themselves from the deadly dust. Jolting crises like these rivet our attention, but unfortunately not for long. We need to learn to pay steady attention to what is happening in our communities, while building institutions that persistently work to prevent not only catastrophes like the Triangle Fire and Hawks Nest Tunnel, but the slow erosion of health and environment.

Public Health and ASARCO

Through this project, we’ve been trying to understand how people think about public health in their work, home and communities, as it is impacted by extractive/industrial activities. What do people know about public health? What do they expect from or contribute to the public health efforts to educate and protect their community? What resources are available to them as they attempt to learn about the risks they are being exposed to, and the potential impacts that could result?

We’ve also been trying to understand the role of public agencies and policy in protecting—or failing to protect—the health of workers and communities. How is public policy shaped so that the sometimes slowly shifting “background” of air, water and soil quality in and around industrial sites will even be noticed? What is the role of Public Health Departments, at all levels of government, in monitoring hazards from operations like those of ASARCO? What can and should be expected of them? How are they supported economically and politically to be effective—or, as we have seen in our research on ASARCO—how are they often prevented from being effective in responding to and preventing the shocks to and the erosions of environmental health and the public good?

Most of our learning about public health – as institution, process and possibility – has come from spending time in and around our neighboring community of Ruston/Tacoma and learning about the impacts on four counties of ASARCO’s century-long operation. We’ll focus here on what we think are valuable and often unrecognized or underappreciated efforts by public health staff in our region. This doesn’t mean we think their work is flawless or fully effective, but it is an effort that needs to be examined, contributed to and strengthened. We’ve learned that the actions being taken in our own region by a four-county network of public health departments are unusual in their focus on long-term monitoring and remediation of ASARCO’s contamination, and we think this work deserves critical attention. We’ve also been following efforts on the state legislative front, in particular a bill focused on smelter contaminated soils that offers a remedial path in support of children’s health.

What follows is a guide to what we’ve been learning about public health in response to ASARCO’s operations in our region and in a more limited way, in the other regions we’ve visited and learned from. We’re offering a basic, necessarily incomplete guide to Public-Health-and-ASARCO, with materials drawn from the agencies, the legislature and the media, as well as our own research and that of the community residents with whom we collaborate.

One thing that should demand attention from all of us is the inequality that exists between impacted communities: the different impacts of pollution and hazard; different treatment by the authorities; and different opportunities for recovery. It has become clear that different communities facing the same corporation cannot expect equal treatment from the company or the public agencies.

• The soil (dosing lead and arsenic) a child plays in at an Arizona schoolyard may pose a similar risk to that faced by a child in Washington; but how these children are treated has much to do with how the company operates politically in different state jurisdictions and how public health as a social process has developed differently in the two states.

• What the child in Juarez, Mexico breathes in from the airshed may be similar to the risk borne by the child in El Paso, Texas, but being on the south side of the border heightens the child’s vulnerability. (And neither child is as well served as the children in Washington State, where a special publicly funded project examines children’s exposure.)

• The “Hispanic Factor” corporate policy discovered at the Hayden, Arizona smelter reveals a deeply unethical pattern of unequal treatment (see the Hayden, Arizona section in Community Profiles for more on ASARCO’s manipulation of lung function tests for Hispanic workers).

• Protections afforded primarily white workers of European descent in Ruston tended to come to Hispanic workers in the Southwest much later. For instance, during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, when Ruston workers could leave their work clothes to be washed in an on-site laundry, Hispanic workers in El Paso were taking their clothes home to be washed (except for their coveralls), thus raising the probability of contaminating their families with toxic dust from ASARCO’s operations.

• In El Paso and East Helena, Montana, smelter workers and their communities were exposed to illegal hazards, when hazardous waste from Defense Department sites was secretly incinerated in ASARCO’s El Paso and East Helena furnaces in the 1990s. Although the EPA identified the violations and fined the company, the impacted communities were not informed and nothing was done to monitor the health of workers who handled the hazardous waste. In El Paso, the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have refused to test for possible contaminants in area soils, air and water caused by the hazardous waste incineration, or look for long-term impacts on ASARCO’s workers.

Learning about the risks in other communities, strategizing about risks that are experienced in common and yet are responded to with de-facto unequal treatment can galvanize people into building bridges across the borders that separate them, demanding more public accountability, and reconstructing how we labor and live.

The Public Health Vantage Point from Ruston and Tacoma, Washington

Asarco was a protagonist in the struggle for public and environmental health in Washington State dating back to the early part of the twentieth century. Not only did the company have smelters in Tacoma and Everett, but it exerted a powerful hold on early ideas about risk and responsibility. In the 1920s, a group of Washington state farmers legally challenged the Teck Cominco smelter in Trail, British Columbia. ASARCO was shaping its hemispheric cross-borders position and did not want the grievants to be successful in challenging polluted industries across a national border. The company teamed up with Teck Cominco and successfully convinced Washington DC leaders to minimize their sympathies and remedies for Washington State farmers. This momentous piece of legal strategizing introduced an early litmus test for environmental claims – “visible injury,” meaning that unless visible damage (in this case to vegetation) could be demonstrated, claims were likely to be judged groundless.

US farmers downwind from Trail received some economic compensation for crop loss, and the Trail smelter came under a mild regulatory regime, but no thorough research on invisible damage was continued, and no fundamental principles were laid down for elimination of trans-boundary pollution…It would take a whole new effort – coming in large part from the environmental movement in the 1960s – to outflank the Trail precedent and bring the smelter industries under a more stringent regulatory regime based on new scientific findings into the effects of smelter pollution on human health as well as plants, and on the newly discovered phenomenon of acid rain. (Smelter Smoke in North America, Wirth, p. xv.)

During this early period of the 20th century ASARCO was a major powerhouse of the productive economy of the Pacific Northwest. Its smelter stack towered over Commencement Bay, where it represented economic health and promise to many an immigrant and worker. While there is no doubt that the smelter contributed to the economic vitality of the Ruston/Tacoma region, and represented job security for many working families, there were also emerging concerns about smelter smoke and its impacts. Periodically, newspaper articles recounted residents’ concerns about damage to plants or livestock. One of the earliest public notices of concern was a lawsuit filed against the smelter in 1917 by a concerned Tacoman for damaging nearby crops; although such daring legal challenges earned the contempt of the company and some powerful local officials, they were a sign of more sustained battles to come. (“Smelter Smoke,” The Forum, 1917)

Over decades of growing concern, the public health process took form in Washington State. (See the sections on Ruston/Tacoma for a detailed profile of these developments; especially Marianne Sullivan’s analysis and ”The Tacoma Process.”) The Tacoma Pierce County Health Department was at the center of these efforts, as it helped shape the science and public process around smelter smoke, soil contamination, impacts on vegetation and gardens, and impacts on people’s lung, skin and overall health.

Health-and-Environment Fieldtrips

A key feature of our learning has been the opportunity to see a community by meeting with area leaders, community advocates and public health staff from county and state agencies, followed by a walk in and around the former smelter site. There is a growing practice, drawn from popular education and community-based research, of doing walkarounds and risk mapping. Here in our region we’ve organized several journeys in and around Ruston/Tacoma so that people can begin to get a sense of the history, the geography of the impacted area, the remains of the industrial landscape, and the structural changes implemented through remediation and development. It is vital for visitors and residents to not only become familiar with government documents, maps and websites, but to hear the stories about community history and struggle, to develop a sense of different vantage points, as voiced by local elders, community leaders, activated and concerned residents and public health practitioners. Much of our own learning has taken place through these visits and walkarounds.

We consulted with staff from the Tacoma Pierce County Heath Department, who provided background on their efforts and access to their information systems. They have given us their time, joining us for the field trips we’ve organized for students and regional teachers. With the help of the TPCHD we’ve tried to help build regional interest in and knowledge about how public health systems take on these very long-term challenges and efforts to restore environmental health. We understand that this has been helpful to agency staff too, giving them a chance to hear questions and concerns from residents, students and a broader public who are learning for the first time about monitoring and remediation activities in the region. Even a group of scientists of varied backgrounds from around our region, noted that they had not been paying much attention to the daily efforts of the health department at this one Superfund site and 4-county impact area. Public health as a practice is often taken for granted or not noticed by the community and even by regional scientists.

ASARCO and Public Health Agencies in Washington State

The Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Authority was one of the first regional bodies in the Ruston/Tacoma area to gather data and estimate public risk from ASARCO’s emissions. During the 1980s and the series of activities now known as “The Tacoma Process”, the EPA drew on the knowledge and energies of regional authorities, particularly PSAPCA and the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD). The Tacoma Process culminated with the 1985 decision to list the massive contamination zone in and around Commencement Bay as a federal Superfund site, with the ASARCO site as a critical subset of this larger industrial impact zone. Since ASARCO closed down in 1985 TPCHD staff have had to negotiate a complex jurisdictional terrain, cultivating partnerships with state agencies and building ties to impacted municipalities in Pierce and neighboring counties in order to educate communities about the problems of this federally monitored Superfund. During more than two decades, as ASARCO’s contractors cleaned arsenic-contaminated yards, replaced yard soils and demolished industrial buildings, TPCHD was a central player in the cultivation of regional knowledge about long-term exposure to arsenic and lead and in developing mitigation and protection measures. They have worked with a range of organizations and community advocates through the Soil Health Advisory Committee, a regional group that launched a long-term approach to what they determined would be a protracted, chronic and uneven pattern of regional exposure, sorting through the possible geographic reach and health impacts of airborne emissions. This group was a path-breaker in bringing a range of parties to the table to negotiate the scientific and practical implications of industrial contamination against the backdrop of a very demanding and at times exhausting Superfund process.

To get a sense of the output of this work, we’ll turn to the concrete efforts of the TPCHD in its current Dirt Alert Program, developed in partnership with King and Thurston Counties, with their parallel public health goals of remediation and public protection, and with the WA State Department of Ecology. Much of this complex cross-jurisdictional work has been enabled by a very critical piece of legislation enacted in the WA State Legislature in 2005. So first, a profile of this key legislation.

As evidence emerged that ASARCO’s emissions had impacted a 1,000 square mile area, Dave Upthegrove, WA State Representative for District 33, was hearing some of his constituents raise these questions: How do we know that the public is safe from the slow, but persistent pattern of airborne metals? How can we know what we’re exposed to? Can it be impacting our soils? Is it safe to garden? And most importantly, is it safe for children to play in the dirt, at their homes, at school and at daycare centers?

District 33 includes a good part of King County, north of Tacoma. It is not at the epicenter of the Tacoma/ASARCO story, but it does reside in ASARCO’s orbit, having received airborne pollutants for many decades. The Safe Soils Bill developed by Representative Upthegrove in consultation with the Washington Departments of Ecology and Health, put in place a long-term commitment from the State of Washington and four counties to develop a work plan to sample soils, identify hazards (particularly to children) and initiate small-scale education and remediation plans across the four-county region. Agency staff, especially in Pierce and King Counties, would take on the task of evaluating the exposure of children at their schools and daycare centers. Those sites identified as most at risk would be altered through soil removal, the introduction of safer new soils and buffers provided by vegetation. Parents, school officials and day care providers would be brought into a long-term educational project to sustain a vigilant focus on children’s exposure, trouble spots and daily practices to minimize exposure. In Pierce County, billboards in shopping and residential areas broadcast the Health Department’s messages about potential exposure hazards, particularly the long-term hazards of arsenic in soils.

(See the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department’s Dirt Alert Program and affiliated efforts at the Washington Department of Ecology and Department of Health.)

(King County, north of Pierce County, has an extensive Health Department website that provides a wide range of materials on the impacts of the smelter-plume, lead and arsenic, tools for educators and residents, health studies and advisories, and maps.

Taken together these three intersecting websites provide valuable resources and indicate the scale of the challenge facing public health advocates in the region.

The first phase of the Soil Safety Program successfully cleaned up play areas at schools and privately owned childcares to keep children from coming into contact with remnants of Asarco’s toxic legacy…We still have areas with high levels of contamination. With the ASARCO settlement in hand and the Legislature’s approval to use that money, we’re gearing up to tackle more of the work. (Rebecca Lawson, Washington Department of Ecology Regional Toxics Cleanup Program manager, quoted in “Asarco settlement money,” June 30, 2010)

However, Washington faces severe budget woes, as do other ASARCO-impacted states. The very modest gains that have been made to identify pollution sources and activate community-protective solutions are now under threat; the almost invisible, easy-to-take-for-granted efforts in public health can be sidetracked just while they’re getting started. In an article in the Tacoma News-Tribune, Janet Primomo, a professor of Nursing at the University of Washington Tacoma, reminded us that we have a long way to go:

Tacoma is still cleaning up the mess that ASARCO left behind. There are day cares and playgrounds with dangerous levels of lead and arsenic, which put our kids’ health at risk. Actions as simple as children picking up dropped toys and putting them in their mouths can expose kids to lead and increase their health risks. That’s not the kind of dangers our children should have to face. But the money for toxic site cleanup is under siege. Over the past few years, $250 million have been transferred out of a voter-approved toxic cleanup fund. Further cuts endanger these essential cleanups in our community – putting the health of all at risk.

Commenting on the state’s budget crisis, Primomo urged the legislature to “maintain the critical environmental protections that ensure that we have clean air to breathe and safe water to drink, and to clean up toxic sites that threaten our health.” And she concluded, “Keeping our environment clean will protect our children, public health, economic future and quality of life here in Washington.”

Building on these broad public health concerns, a group of dedicated labor activists with Jobs with Justice mounted a campaign on behalf of workers remediating the old smelter site. In 2006 MC Construction, a local developer, purchased the former ASARCO site with the intention of building a high-end “urban village” with private homes, condominiums, hotels, shops and restaurants. MC Construction was legally bound to some safeguards and prohibitions on soil exposure for future residents. The company was required to cap the contaminated soil on the smelter site with clean material, and had to accept a permanent ban on planting trees and shrubs whose roots might rupture the site cap. Jobs with Justice and others in the regional labor movement found that Cohen’s subcontractors had failed to protect construction workers, many of them immigrant workers. The absence of needed training, safeguards, protective gear and air/soil monitoring became a much publicized and dramatized issue, with workers and activists picketing the site under remediation with signs condemning the post-ASARCO developer and challenging municipal leaders to monitor labor conditions. This struggle reminded locals, many of them smelter worker families, that the need to protect workers’ health does not end with the closure of a risky site, and that workers’ health struggles need to be joined to the broader range of health concerns, especially when an industrial site is being readied for lucrative post-industrial uses.

Public health in and around Hayden and Winkelman, Arizona

(For more information, see: our Community Stories, Arizona section)

We who live in Washington are fortunate that our state has entered into a different phase of its relationship with mining and smelting. Washington has taken a leading role in dealing with the smelter’s droppings, what the company has left behind. Even in Washington, it can be politically risky to be direct and hard-hitting about the ASARCO’s impacts; criticizing the company can put you on the outs with some powerful figures in the region. Still, while the work of remediation and monitoring in Washington has its own challenges, they are minor compared to what agencies and community members in Arizona risk when they attempt to confront ASARCO.

The people who live in Arizona’s mining communities are on the frontlines of a continuing battle, on an ever-changing border of risk and responsibility. This is true, in part, because of the influential role of King Copper in Arizona, but it is also because the Hayden/Winkelman site is the only surviving smelting operation in the US. The Hayden community is absolutely and fully dependent on ASARCO; furthermore, ASARCO’s Arizona mines give it continued clout throughout the region. Given the power and persistence of the industry and the economic dependence of the miners and smelter workers, a political agenda has developed that consistently pushes public health to the margins. This means that the community, the workforce, the union, and the state and county public health agencies bear a special burden, including the distinctive anguish that comes from holding knowledge that is shackled by constraints on action.

The public health posture in Arizona on the hazards of mining and smelting has been on-again, off-again. Community groups and courageous individuals have asked difficult questions and worked quietly and often forcefully, to challenge the company, to gather evidence and to call on public health, labor and environmental authorities for support. Those advocates have intermittently succeeded in drawing much needed attention to their plight before being silenced, sidetracked, penalized or exhausted. And so the community’s story about itself has shifted every few years. Visits to the cemetery, photos, conversations with families and the yellowed clippings in the small Hayden library tell of a community that has lost fathers and sons to gruesome accidents, while relatives wonder whether cancers, kidney diseases, lung ailments, miscarriages and birth defects are the result of chronic exposure to lead, arsenic, chromium, copper, and other contaminants. It is not easy – or advisable – to talk openly on the streets about these illnesses and accidents related to the long history of ASARCO’s presence.

At times the Steelworkers locals have been involved, especially when accidents occur in the plants. It’s been the sad duty of local union officials to visit the families of men whose lives were squandered because of shoddy workplace conditions. But it’s proven difficult to sustain a long-term fight with the company over occupational and environmental health when the livelihood of the community depends on a fired-up smelter and an active mine.

Our visits to Hayden have offered glimpses and impressions of the risks threatening the community. We’ve documented a limited paper trail identifying actions taken by state and federal agencies. The presence of public health and environmental officials and practitioners is extremely limited in Hayden. While the staff may have concerns they can’t voice, there is too much available evidence for any public health or environmental health practitioner to claim ignorance of ASARCO’s shoddy record and the health and safety challenges it has created for the community. Nevertheless, the state’s overall policy stance has been tepid, so much so that when the EPA began to test air and soil in Hayden and the next-door town of Winkleman, it was met with resistance by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the Governor’s office, both wanting to avoid the “stigma” of federal attention. Recently, University of Arizona scientists have begun to pose questions about the long-term health effects of the mining waste that dusts the region. Hopefully, this research will lead to more public recognition of the dangers that Arizona communities face.

Currently, Hayden and Winkelman are being acknowledged as public health high-needs areas because of the quiet persistence of a few staff in EPA, Region 10. Facing a chilly reception from area and state officials who refused to invite them into the community, EPA staff have continued trying to gather evidence and initiate some remedy. When their recommendation to list Hayden/Winkleman as a Superfund site was resisted by local and state authorities, the EPA used a provision allowing them to do emergency cleanups in designated houses. When ASARCO agreed to a wider remediation process (without acknowledging responsibility or admitting the dangers deposited in area soils and air), EPA instituted federal monitoring of the clean-up and conducted community-wide meetings to inform the public and invite public participation. According to the EPA Region 9 documents that are available online, between March 2008 and October 2009, over 260 residences in Hayden and Winkelman had soil removed, due to high levels of arsenic, lead and copper. This is not the solution to the region’s long-term exposure, but it has forced public recognition of the dangers from ASARCO’s ongoing practices. While community members have complained that the clean-up is a band-aid that did not address the worst effects of metal pollution drifting into their living spaces, they have welcomed the agency’s intervention.

It is not easy to track government information online about conditions in Hayden. Some of the material, including some public information sheets, is available on the EPA website. Go to “Gila &Pinal,” and then “Asarco Hayden Plant.”

The Public Health Picture in Paso del Norte

For a fuller account see Community Stories, El Paso, Texas

The El Paso border region (Paso del Norte) includes El Paso, Ciudad Juarez across the Rio Grande in Mexico, and Anapra, New Mexico. Hard-bitten by a century of aggressive industrialization and the fluid movement of resources in support of economic growth and globalization, Paso del Norte has for a long time felt the public health deficits and environmental damage that accompany unrestrained growth, extraction of resources and exploitation of working people.

ASARCO was a key player in this complex history in which themes of industrial activity, immigration, urban growth and environmental degradation are densely woven together. One of the first outposts of modernization in the border region, the ASARCO smelter was positioned to receive ore and workers from Mexico; the wealth produced by ASARCO contributed to the economic vitality and growth of the El Paso region. In our Community Stories section we discuss the persistent concerns of people on all sides of the Texas/Mexico/New Mexico border about the hazardous impacts of smelting on labor and neighbors. The research of Dr. Philip Landrigan and others, who established ASARCO’s emissions as the cause of lead poisoning in Smeltertown children, marks a significant moment in public health history. This was a critical juncture when children’s health was publicly recognized as a poignant marker of industry’s fallout. Over the years, a dedicated few in the Paso del Norte region have persisted in asking questions, pressing for documents and details, and building cross-border alliances to challenge the company’s practices.

The controversy over the benefits and dangers of ASARCO in El Paso has sometimes pitted worker against worker and neighbors against labor. Given this lengthy debate, it’s important to explore the role and responsibility of local public health and environmental practitioners. What are the resources that local people can draw on as they seek information about potential environmental and health hazards? What responsibility do local universities, public agencies, researchers and doctors have for community health and well-being?

For many years the El Paso area was distinguished by its silence on these issues. Many of the resources the community might have turned to for help were indebted to ASARCO. The University of Texas at El Paso started out in the early 20th century as the Texas School of Miners and Metallurgy, partially funded by ASARCO, on land donated by the company. Attempts by local pharmacist Joe Piñon to learn more about the potential damage from Asarco’s emissions, especially lead, were ignored by professional and business networks. The El Paso City/County Health Department tried to squelch Dr. Landrigan’s research and replace it with an industry-funded study that purported to prove that lead exposure was not damaging to children. In the late 1970’s, Dr. Magaña, a local pediatrician who helped lead the movement against Dr. Landrigan’s research, was made director of the El Paso City/County Health Department and Environmental District, a position he held for approximately 30 years. In 2005 Dr. Magaña was awarded a Border Health Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Mexico Border Health Council. Until the end of his tenure, Magaña continued to insist that community concerns about lead were overstated.

More recently, regional scientists have begun to look critically and carefully at the environmental and public health impacts of the smelter’s operations. In 2006 chemist Michael Kettering wrote:

The following points…strongly support the contention that ASARCO is a major source of hazardous substances in environmental soils, accounting at most sampled locations for at least 50% of the total concentration of elements such as lead, arsenic and cadmium.

Among the key points listed by Ketterer:

It is well established that ASARCO emitted large quantities of hazardous substances into the environment in the form of stack emissions as well as fugitive dusts…. It is well established that ASARCO emissions were mainly responsible for consistently elevated airborne concentrations of Pb [lead] and other metals in the immediate vicinity of the smelters.

Ketterer also wrote:

It is not the case that ASARCO’s El Paso plant represents a unique, isolated case of smelter-related contamination. As is described elsewhere, nonferrous metal smelting is established with a high degree of scientific certainty as being a source of severe local and regional scale contamination. The findings in this study are consistent with the widespread environmental contamination that has been found at many other smelting locations. (Ketterer, 2006)

In 2009 the founding of a border medical school in El Paso, the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, seemed to mobilize a newly committed group of physicians and scientists to take a stand. The Resolution of Concerned Physicians and Surgeons of El Paso signaled the possibility of a more hopeful era of straight talk and public responsibility. It gave needed support to a coalition of former Asarco workers, environmentalists, public officials and citizens of El Paso, Juarez and New Mexico who were fighting to prevent ASARCO from renewing its air permit and re-opening its shuttered smelter (ASARCO was successful in getting the air permit, but then announced the smelter would not re-open—for more information see Borders of Resistance, a documentary film produced by the No Borders project). The Resolution stated:

Whereas the following are indisputable facts:

1. The Asarco Corporation in El Paso (Asarco) has over the past century produced toxic byproducts of copper smelting, such as lead, arsenic, sulfur dioxide, cadmium and zinc,

2. These toxic chemicals have entered the soil and water supply, including but not exclusive to, the environs of their operation in West El Paso,

3. Their presence is dangerous to the health and welfare of those who rely on the city drinking water,

4. That, in particular, lead is known to be harmful to the brain of growing children, potentially decreasing their capacity to think for the rest of their lives,

5. Asarco has not cleaned up their factory site, which includes a toxic waste dump site, and

6. Resumption of smelting operations near what is now a densely populated area would produce more toxic chemicals in the air, soil and ground water,

Therefore, we, as physicians and surgeons concerned with the health of our patients in the El Paso region, resolve the following:

1. We unalterably oppose the resumption of smelting operations at the Asarco plant.

2. We strongly insist that the Federal and State Government’s Environmental Protection Agencies enforce existing laws to compel immediate cleanup of contaminated sites in the region of the plant.

3. We strongly insist that Asarco be made to honor its responsibilities to clean up its environmental pollution notwithstanding its attempts to flout them through bankruptcy protection.

4. We strongly urge that public officials consider condemning and seizing their property under existing environmental laws if Asarco is unwilling or unable to fulfill its obligations to the citizens of El Paso.

5. We strongly urge the people of El Paso to understand the creation of (perhaps) 1800 new jobs cannot justify the poisoning of millions of people, including those who work in the plant, in a region that is now growing faster than most in the US. Our region will suffer untold economic hardship from emigration and lack of attraction of new businesses if the environment is again degraded by the resumption of Asarco’s smelting operations.

Resolution of concerned Physicians and Surgeons of El Paso, January 22, 2009

Over the last decade, ASARCO has become a central focus in discussions and monitoring of border ecology. A string of reports and research monographs addressing a damaged and industrially exhausted border have identified the old smelter as a source of pollution to be reckoned with. Recently an important cross-border conference, convened by the National Library of Medicine, profiled El Paso as a city with significant contamination of soils, and a pattern of serious health disparities. It summarized concerns about border health in this way:

Issues surrounding health and the environment are very important to the El Paso border region, including the environmental ASARCO smelter plan for cleanup…The old parts of El Paso as well as Juarez were indicated as having concentrated areas of lead contamination in the soil and blood samples of children were examined which determined elevated concentration of lead in certain areas. (EHIP Partnership, 2009, pgs. 13,19)

Other bodies that have taken note are the US-Mexican Border office of the Pan American Health Organization, the tri-national Commission for Environmental Cooperation and the bi-national Border Environment Cooperation Commission (the later two are products of the environmental side agreements to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.) The US-Mexico Border Environmental Health Initiative (of the US Geological Survey) is another touchstone of bi-national attention and, hopefully, demonstrates an intention to address the serious health threats and unequal odds plaguing the border region. Border area researchers are mindful of the need to strengthen their knowledge base and are conducting soil sampling and analysis. Professional organizations such as the Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy are gathering data and publishing monographs. All this work is welcome and much needed after the decades of research-drought that accompanied El Paso’s medical establishment’s overall disregard for the dangers posed by ASARCO.

The National Arena

ASARCO, like many major corporations, has exerted its power and presence to mold national policy, especially in the arena of public health science and policy. Early signs that industry intended to set the terms of engagement shape the long story of public health and environmental policy. The book Smelter Smoke profiles ASARCO’s early 20th century influence in shaping cross-national industrial policy and litigation and its imprint on science; long before the advent of environmentalism as we know it today, the captains of industry had determined much of how we think about risk, exposure, public health and acceptable remedy. Over the past century, ASARCO, shoulder to shoulder with other industry titans, has worked to mold our basic knowledge, as well as tilt the onus of legal responsibility away from the responsible parties.

Acclaimed epidemiologist Devra Davis has helped reveal the constrictions on public health science over the past century. In her book, When Smoke Ran Like Water, she described how Dr. Mary Amdur, a scientist on contract with ASARCO in the 1950s, endured strong-arm tactics when she publicly revealed the hazards of smelter emissions and the impact on those who lived in industrial mill towns. In 2003 Dr. Davis visited El Paso. As she explains in The Secret History of the War on Cancer, she believed the long history of public endangerment was past.

I learned that some environmental solutions, unlike love, are not forever. El Paso’s problems are not nearly as well resolved as I have believed…In March 2005 the inspector general for the US State Department reviewed records on the health of workers at the US-Mexican border and concluded that many of them were sick and unable to get independent medical care in this region…Pollutants do not need passports. The residents of El Paso and Juarez know this, because they are joined by more than a century’s worth of leaden soils and plumes that have freely crossed back and forth over the US-Mexican border and left many zones uninhabitable. (Davis, 2007, p. 347)

ASARCO’s impacts on public health science and policy have been felt at both the grassroots and national levels. The company has joined other industrial leaders in pushing for “audit privilege,” which allows a wide margin of self-policing and lack of transparency in environmental policy. ASARCO had very good representation during the George W. Bush years, with James Connaughton, one of its lead attorneys, serving as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. One highlight of the Bush anti-public-health regime was its effort to pack the Center for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning. Highly regarded public health scientists were pushed aside in favor of Dr. Joyce Tsuji, an employee of the science firm Exponent which had worked closely with ASARCO to rewrite the diagnosis on lead and children. Dr. Tsuji later withdrew her name. US Representative Ed Markey exposed the corporate science skew in his 2002 report “Turning Lead into Gold: How the Bush Administration is Poisoning the Lead Advisory Committee at the CDC.”

And what of the residents near old ASARCO sites around the US? What do they know, feel, believe, fear and want? How do they think about their relation with a company that might have served as the key economic engine in their area, while using up people’s health and the environment as a matter of business?

The contortions and distortions of science-by-industry have sorely weakened our capacity to build scientific knowledge, assure just remedy and cultivate public trust in environmental policy. Through our project we have seen glimmers of strong determination in communities which are searching for clarity and answers to the question: “what is happening to us?” It is tragic and frustrating that answers to this seemingly simple question are not easy to come by. While each community has a different story, all are experiencing the trickledown of corporatized science and policy. While citizen researchers in Ruston, Hayden and El Paso are actively seeking information and demanding public attention, many communities have never been informed that their health and future may be impacted by long-term extractive/industrial operations and the corporate reorganization of a rebounding company. We learn that in a rural Tennessee mining region, site of four ASARCO zinc mines listed in the bankruptcy settlement, neighbors wonder about the mine tailings that are piled in small hillocks in the backcountry; they have very little information with which to evaluate the significance of those droppings left by ASARCO. We read that in Idaho, mining/smelting towns are whiplashed between their pressing health concerns and their sense of exhaustion and frustration over questionable remedies. One day residents seem fed up with the feds, as profiled in an AP news story, “Superfund cleanup in Idaho draws local opposition” (Geranios, 8/13/10), while a few weeks later, headlines remind residents of lingering worries: “Victims of north Idaho lead pollution still suffer physical, emotional ills” (Geranios, 9/5/2010). Regional lawmakers are tired of the Superfund “stigma” and want the EPA to pack up and leave, despite the 300 mine sites that leach metals into the Coeur d’Alene watershed (Kramer, “Idaho lawmakers blast EPA proposal”).

In Colorado fear of the Superfund stigma hasn’t quelled public concern, instead, citizens of Globeville pushed for a class action lawsuit. They won the suit in the 1980’s and have continued to actively press for solutions to the contamination in their community. Even though people talk about the exhaustion they feel from their prolonged involvement in the struggle, the harm done and the ongoing need for a just solution can still stir the community. (Marcus, “Contempt over contamination: Globeville neighborhood speaks up over blighted abandoned plant.”)

East Helena, Montana was the site of one of the oldest ASARCO smelters; it is also where the company illegally incinerated Defense Department-generated hazardous waste. There you can hear a mix of grave concern and determination.

Undoubtedly, there will be lingering emotions with the closure, demolition and outright erasure of ASARCO’s fingerprints here. One can’t remove the significant impact ASARCO had on the people of this region and the entire town of East Helena. It’s time to turn the page and, thankfully, it appears the crew whose responsibility it is to ensure a healthy environment in the wake of ASARCO’s degradation are committed to the integrity of the cleanup work. Generations of East Helenans devoted to their lives to ASARCO, and in return, they and their descendants deserve the very best. (“New era in cleanup commendable”)

Much of Eastern Omaha, Nebraska, is designated a federal Superfund site, with ASARCO identified as a key polluter, particularly because lead contamination from the plant put children’s health at risk. The soil at nearly 6000 properties has been replaced, as the city contends with a massive cleanup operation. ASARCO, agreed to pay $200 million as part of a settlement, but refused to admit culpability. The company is now pushing a lawsuit against EPA. ASARCO hopes to demonstrate that EPA inappropriately handled files and memos. If the company wins, they will be able to collect millions of dollars from other businesses accused of pollution in Omaha.

In the 90-100 communities that reportedly have been impacted by ASARCO, there is a wide range of experiences and a labyrinth of stories, strategies and solutions. It’s not clear that many of these communities know much about each other, connect and trade resources and ideas, or see that their destinies and their health might be linked. But this is starting to change, as we see community advocates in El Paso begin to network with national organizations like the Coalition for Health, Environment and Justice and build connections with people in Corpus Christi, Texas who have similar stories to tell about the corporate abuse of health and environment.

What does all of this mean for the public’s health and for Public Health Practice? What does it mean for practitioners of public health, on the ground, in communities? There are of course the notable public health scientists who need and deserve our support, from Dr. Landrigan who first tracked the impacts of lead on children in El Paso to Dr. Davis who insists that public health history and contemporary practice involve an honest appraisal of industry’s strong hand. There are also the courageous local practitioners like Joe Piñon in El Paso, a lone and persistent voice for half a century. And there are today’s practitioners in city and county health departments who stay focused on long-term efforts to minimize the hazards and help piece together the puzzle of persistent pollution.

Equally important are community members on the ground who take on the mantle of public-health-advocates, workers’ health defenders or environmental justice activists. They have started to see what is only barely acknowledged, that as workers and residents in and around industrial operations, they bear risks that need to be exposed, and deserve remedies they should have a role in designing. Labor/neighbor collaborative organizing projects, community-based research, popular education, street science and risk mapping are some of the methods communities are using to assert and develop their capacity to deal with both the systemic shocks and the slow erosion that endangers our health. The ASARCO story (along with the stories of corporations like BP, Exxon, and Union Carbide, among others) is vitally important because it teaches us how communities, workers and neighbors — in connection to public health practitioners — can create knowledge that communities desperately need, and through their work, lay the foundation for a more vigilant dedication to public health.

For a more detailed profile of how different communities have fared with Superfund, including Arizona, Texas and Washington, and to read about the impact of ASARCO’s bankruptcy, see the Center for Health, Environment and Justice 2009 report on the status of Superfund.

Additional information about ASARCO’s bankruptcy can be found at this website on the bankruptcy page.


“Administration Gives Panel on Childhood Lead Poisoning an Industry Tilt,” OMB Watch, October 15, 2002. http://www.ombwatch.org/print/74

“Asarco settlement money funds new soil cleanups.” WA Department of Ecology press release June 30, 2010. http://www.ecy.wa.gov/news/2010news/2010-148.html

Amaya, M., Pingitore, N. et. al., “Toxic Metals in the Air and Soil of the Paso del Norte Region,” US – Mexico Border Environment: Integrated Approach to Defining Particulate Matter Issues in the Paso del Norte Region. SLERC (SW Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy) Monograph Series #12, Ch. V., p. 131-136.

Asarco in El Paso, report from the office of TX Senator Eliot Shapleigh, November 2007.

Berg, Jeff. “Sunland Park, A Growing Environment,” Newspaper Tree, 4-17-06. www.newspapertree.com/features/984-sunland-park-a-growing-environment

Byron, Eve. “Annual East Helena Asarco meeting Thursday,” Independent Record, (Helena MT), February 20, 2011

Byron, Eve. “Extent of selenium plume still unknown,” Independent Record (Helena MT), February 25, 2010

Calkins, Laurel. “Grupo Mexico Claims EPA Lied to Judge, Hid Evidence in Lead Pollution Case,” Dec 17, 2010. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2010-12-17/asarco-claims-epa-lied-destroyed-evidence

“Contaminated Globeville May Get Second Chance: Multi-Jurisdictional Agreement Moving Forward,” 7-News, Denver, March 23, 2011. http://www.thedenverchannel.com/27303143

Davis, Devra. When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, Cambridge: Basic Books, 2002.

Davis, Devra. The Secret History of the War on Cancer, NY: Basic Books, 2007.

El Paso County/ Dona Ana County Metals. EPA Region 6 Superfund Program. http://www.epa.gov/region6/6sf/texas/el_paso/tx_el_paso_index.html

El Paso docs – scientists’ statement

El Paso Get the Lead Out Blog. http://epgtlo.blogspot.com Founded and maintained by community advocate Health McMurray. A valuable collection of informative and revealing documents.

“Environmental Health Information Partnership (EHIP) Proceedings,” National Library of Medicine, El Paso, June 29 – July 1, 2009 Focus: US – Mexico Border Health.

Funk, Josh. “Asarco tries to revive its own EPA records lawsuit.” December 17, 2010 Ventura County Star. http://www.vcstar.com/news/2010/dec/17/asarco-tries-to-revive-its-own-epa-records

Geranios, Nicholas. “Superfund cleanup in Idaho draws local opposition.” AP release, August 13, 2010.

Geranios, Nicholas. “Victims of north Idaho lead pollution still suffer physical, emotional ills,” Missoulian, September 3, 2010.

Get the Lead Out, El Paso community coalition. http://www.gettheleadout.net   Photos, events, news, strategy.

Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development, January 2001. http://www.psr.org/chapters/boston/resources/in-harm’s-way.html (documents, training modules, community resources on lead and other toxicants impacting children’s health)

Hazmaps. http://hazmap.nlm.nih.gov/index.html Regional information, by toxic contaminant. Superfund designations.

Ketterer, Michael, “The Asarco El Paso Smelter: A Source of Local Contamination of Soils in El Paso (TX), Ciudad Juarez (Chihuahua, MX), and Anapra (NM),” January 27, 2006, report by Ketterer, PhD., analytical chemist, to the Sierra Club.

Klein, Naomi. Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Vintage Canada, 2008.

Kramer, Becky. “Idaho lawmakers blast EPA proposal,” The Spokesman Review, November 24, 2010.  http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2010/nov/24/idaho-lawmakers-blast-epa-proposal

“Lead Astray: Bush Administration stymies added protection,” Environmental Working Group. http://www.ewg.org/node/19789

Marcus, Peter. “Contempt over contamination: Globeville neighborhood speaks up over blighted abandoned plant,” The Denver Daily News, March 28, 2011

“New Era in Cleanup Commendable,” Independent Record (Helena MT), November 23, 2010

Piñon, Joe & Philip Ortego, “Future Conditional: Biology and Politics of Air Pollution,” Ecology Today, November 1971, pgs. 30 – 36.

Primomo, Janet. “It won’t save money if we let dirty environment harm our families’ health,” The Tacoma News Tribune, April 13, 2011.

“Protect Yourself from Arsenic and Lead in the Soil,” part of public education video spots from the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department. www.tpchd.org/page.php?id=442

“Resolution of Concerned Physicians and Surgeons of El Paso,” January 22, 2009.

Roberts, Chris. “EPA cleanup of Asarco site is sought,” El Paso Times, December 7, 2010.

Roberts, Chris. “EPA Chief Lisa Jackson hears impact of pollution on city’s poor,” El Paso Times, January 28, 2011.

Roberts, Chris. “Trustee seeks to fix up arroyo at Asarco,” El Paso Times, March 20, 2011

Roberts, Chris. “Possible toxic sites ID’d at Asarco,” El Paso Times, March 27, 2011

“Smelter Smoke,” The Forum (Tacoma, WA), December 8, 1917.

Spruill, Rick. “Report: ASARCO/Encycle plant scene of multiple, unreported violations,” Caller (Corpus Christi, TX), January 22, 2011 http://www.caller.com/news/2011/jan/22/report-asarcoencycle-plant-scene-of-multiple

Superfund: In the Eye of the Storm, Center for Health, Environmental Justice, March 2009. Our project contributed the sections on Corporate Bankruptcy (pgs. 21-22), profile of Arizona (pgs. 32-33) and Washington (pgs. 78-79, prepared by Virginia Carpio). http://www.chej.org/BESAFE/media/superfund_2009.shtml

On July 10, 2009 Lois Gibbs, CHEJ founder and director, provided testimony to Congress, noting the Asarco story. “Congressional Briefing Looks at Benefit of Refinancing Superfund.” http://www.chej.org/media.htm

The Toll of Superfund Neglect: Toxic Waste Dumps and Communities at Risk, Rena Steinzor & Margaret Clune. A joint project of the Center for American Progress and the Center for Progressive Reform. June 15, 2006. An important analysis of the financial and public health deficits of the current Superfund situation. http://www.progressivereform.org/articles/Superfund_061506.pdf

ToxFacts. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts13.html Basic information, Frequently Asked Questions. Lead, arsenic, other metals.

ToxTown. http://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/index.php Some basic public orientation to toxics, local sources, contaminants, government resources and remedies.

“Toxic Waste and Superfund: Cleaning Up Severe Environmental Hazards.” http://www.progressivereform.org/toxicwaste.cfm A collection of reports and statements.

US- Mexico Border Environmental Health Initiative (BEHI). http://borderhealth.cr.usgs.gov/Projectdescription.html

US – Mexico Border 2012 Program, EPA. http://www.epa.gov/usmexicoborder/features/border-video

Wirth, J. Smelter Smoke in North America: The Politics of Transborder Pollution. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Photograph of Triangle Shirtwaist Fire used by permission of the Kheel Center, Cornell University

Hayden, Arizona and the Copper Collar

King Copper

Arizona mining has been marked by a long history of industrial strife, especially for Mexican-Americans who have faced community and workplace discrimination. Much has been written about the persistent mistreatment of and prejudice toward Hispanic workers and their families in Arizona, including two-tiered wage systems, segregated housing, discriminatory patterns of exposure to hazards and restricted access to just and effective remedies. In this essay we explore some of the stories and struggles we’ve learned from our research and from Hispanic miners and community members living and working in Arizona’s copper belt.

In the early years of the 20th century, the celebrated jurist Felix Frankfurter served on a presidential commission regarding industrial conflicts. He expressed a studied outrage at how Mexican workers were being treated in mining operations across Arizona.

The miners feel that they are not treated as men…without a share in determining the conditions of their labor, and their labor is their life…. in a word there is no fellowship for them in the great industrial enterprise which absorbs them. (Parrish, pg. 29)

During World War One, non-compliant workers involved in labor organizing and strikes were blacklisted, especially if they were not US citizens. Mexican miners and smelterworkers were often targets for induction into the military, even while their efforts to become naturalized citizens were being undermined. Some faced jail or deportation. During the war and the “Red Scare” that followed, parts of Arizona’s copper belt were described as a police state. The copper companies maintained stringent control of communities where their mines and smelters were sited; according to Parrish, “the copper companies easily maintained de facto control over the substance of local policy.”(Parrish, pg. 49)

Between World Wars One and Two, and into the 1950s, a pattern of separation and discrimination hardened in Arizona. The “Copper Collar” tightened as copper barons exerted their brand of industrial peace and progress. This involved structural discrimination in housing and jobs, as well as persistent surveillance and red-baiting. The famous (and famously black-listed) film “Salt of the Earth” portrayed the struggles of Mexican and Mexican-American miners and their families, including the women’s efforts to get the Mine, Mill and Smelterworkers Union to add indoor plumbing and hot running water to its strike demands. Both were available to Anglo families, but denied to Mexicans.

The regional disparity in how workers were treated and compensated became clear with the 1944 report of the Federal Equal Employment Commission:

Strike at the Ray mine--reproduced with permission of Frankie and Chuy OlmosMine, Mill and Smelterworkers local at the Ray mine, On Strike

There is a wide spread between the labor scale in effect in the Southwest, where most of the laborers are of Spanish extraction, than [what is] in effect in Idaho, Montana and Utah fields. The spread becomes significant when it is remembered that the copper companies, whether located in the North or in the Southwest, receive the same return for their product.”(quoted in Bustamente, 1995)

Miners and their families continued to struggle with mining companies in Arizona through the 1980’s. In 1983 2400 workers in Clifton/Morenci, members of 13 international unions, went on strike against their employer, the mining giant, Phelps-Dodge. The unions were opposing wage and benefit cuts imposed by the company in violation of an industry-wide contract that had already been ratified by other mining companies. During this protracted and closely observed strike, the laboring communities of ASARCO, Kennecott, Inspiration and Magma Mining Companies saw Phelps Dodge operate with virtual impunity. The company hired replacement workers and worked closely with the state of Arizona to conduct extensive surveillance of the strikers. Governor Babbitt called in state troopers and the National Guard to prevent the unions from enforcing their picket line, and many workers were jailed. In Holding the Line, Barbara Kingsolver writes of the “ironclad, steel-toed partnership” between the state, the police and Phelps-Dodge that crushed the strike. For many families, the disastrous conclusion to the strike, created permanent unemployment and destitution.

In 1995, on the 12th anniversary of the Clifton/Morenci strike, Jonathan Rosenblum wrote about the little-known surveillance strategies adopted by the state through its Arizona State Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency (ACISA). to support Phelps-Dodge in breaking the strike. Rosenblum wrote that ACISA “hired union informants, bugged union meetings, and created a computer database on anyone suspected by the agents of being a ‘troublemaker.’” Rosenblum quoted ACISA Chief Navarrete’s defense of his agency’s activities, “What happened during the strike doesn’t fall within the definition of organized crime, but from my perspective, it’s organized labor’” (http://www.tucsonweekly.com/tw/06-29-95/curr4.htm)

In his book, Copper Crucible, Rosenblum explains how corporate-state response to the strike changed the playing field for unions:

This old weapon (replacement workers) was upgraded and modernized in ways that tilted the playing field in favor of management and brought back with a vengeance the “fungibility” (or replaceability) of labor. (Rosenblum, pg. 222)

To the mix of persistent ethnic prejudice and strengthened management strong-arming of working people and their unions, add the devolving environmental conditions in mining/smelting communities. In 1982, a community group at one of the Phelps Dodge smelters in Douglas, released a blistering account of airborne pollution reaching into a large region of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico, as well as growing evidence of on-the-ground impacts of cancer and serious pulmonary diseases. While Tucson and Phoenix had plans for attainment of Air Quality Standards under federal law, the small smelter towns across the state had no plans, due to limited or shrouded data, the power of the mining-smelting sector and the non-attention of federal regulators. Increasingly, “what are we breathing?” became the question at smelter towns across the state.

Miners in Pinal County: The Growth and Death of Company Towns

Hayden is a small mining/smelter town located partly in Gila County and partly in Pinal County in the southeast part of the state. Along with the neighboring town of Winkelman it is the community and worker base for Asarco’s smelter, the last operating smelter in the US. Hayden has a complex history: originally founded as a company town, it was shaped by patterns of immigration over many generations, ethnic prejudice and discrimination, volatility of strikes and union-management relations, and the ever-growing dreary and dramatic evidence of health and environmental damage.

Hayden’s development is inextricably connected to the broader history of mining in the region. The town was founded in 1909 as a wholly owned entity of the Ray Consolidated Copper Company, part of the Guggenheim corporate group which also held the controlling interest in ASARCO. It was based near the confluence of the Gila and San Pedro rivers to provide housing, for primarily Mexican workers who migrated to the region to build the smelter. In 1912 the company completed construction of the Hayden smelter and began processing ore from the Ray underground copper mine, 17 miles down the road. Ray Consolidated was purchased by Nevada Consolidated, and then by Kennecott Copper in 1933. Through this purchase Kennecott acquired ownership of the company town of Hayden. In 1958 Kennecott began operating a second smelter in Hayden, but it closed in the 1980’s.

Hayden, AZ: ASARCO smelter, 1940'sHayden, AZ: ASARCO smelter, 1940’s

In its earliest days the Ray copper mine was owned by Mineral Creek Mining Company; in 1910, the year after Hayden was founded, it was purchased by Hayden’s owner, Ray Consolidated. In 1933 ownership of the mine passed to Kennecott Copper, By then, three segregated communities were located near the mine. Beginning in 1906 the town of Sonora housed Syrian families and Mexican workers and their families who had been recruited from Sonora, Mexico. The town of Ray was built in 1909 to provide housing for Anglo and Irish workers. In 1911 a third town was founded by Spanish miners and named “Barcelona” after their city of origin.

Labor historian Philip Mellinger has cited the significance of the Ray mine to labor organizing labor in the state:

Arizona’s first World War-era labor activism began with a series of incidents at Ray…Ray, Sonora and Barcelona became a hornet’s nest of social activism which would not subside until after the First World War”(quoted in Seefeldt 2005, p. 7)

Mining operations were influenced by the fluctuations in price and demand in the copper industry; closures of the mine, in turn, affected the residential population. Sonora’s population grew to 5,000 by 1912; but during the early 1930’s when the mine closed, Kennecott agreed to send miners back to Mexico at company expense. By the mid-1930’s the population of Sonora had diminished to 600. Then in 1937 the mine re-opened, and the population once again expanded.

In the 1950’s Kennecott’s underground mine was converted into a vast open-pit mine, and as it grew the three communities were wiped out. A news article published in 1959 reported, “gradually the pit expanded. The Old Man of the Mountain, the great stone face on the hill between Sonora and Ray, disappeared one day in a thunder of dynamite. Bulldozers and shovels crawled all over it,” (quoted in Seefeldt, p. 28). The open pit enveloped the three towns. In 1958 some residents of the former communities of Sonora, Ray and Barcelona relocated to Kearny, a planned community created by a real estate developer under contract to Kennecott; others moved to surrounding communities, including Hayden.

In the early 1950’s Kennecott had begun to rid itself of the company towns that surrounded its mining and smelting operations. The cost of operating a company town had become prohibitive; “it was a competing business that drained energy and resources from mining.” In 1954 Kennecott sold its remaining residential communities in the region—the entire town of Hayden and the downtown districts and homes of Ray and Sonora (but not the land beneath them) to John W. Galbreath Development Corporation (Barcelona had already been abandoned) (Seefeldt, p. 7). Galbraith was in the business of purchasing company towns and then redeveloping them as municipal entities, selling off lots and homes to individual residents. Galbreath built the town of Kearny to provide housing for the displaced residents of Ray and Sonora; it was incorporated as an independent municipality in 1959. Galbreath’s company also handled the incorporation of Hayden as an independent municipality in 1958.

Sonora homes and the Ray open pit mine--reproduced with permission of Frankie and Chuy OlmosSonora homes and the Ray open pit mine

In 1962 Kennecott sent eviction notices to the remaining 2700 residents of Ray and Sonora, to be enforced by December 1965. Kearny was still under construction, with 216 homes available. This was not enough to house the dislocated population, and some Sonoran families complained that they could not afford to buy one of the newly built Kearny homes (Seefeldt, pp. 29-30). In 1963 the Ray business district was destroyed. By 1965 an estimated 2,712 people had moved to Kearny, Hayden, and other mining communities in the region. In 1982 Kennecott closed its Hayden smelter, and in 1986 ASARCO purchased Kennecott’s Ray mine, consolidating its control over the region.

Although the towns of Ray, Barcelona and Sonora have been engulfed by the vast open-pit Ray mine, memories of tight-knit community life persist. One former resident remembers what it was like to grow up in Sonora:

Sonora schoolSonora School

“When I was a kid, you could be on the other side of town doing something wrong and any older woman could scold you and you had to mind them. Everybody was your mother. You respected all the people there. When anybody was in some kind of trouble, all the people would pick up as much funds as necessary and help them.” (Susan Wootton, Copper Basin News, Sept. 1988)

Shaped by the serious and sometimes unforgiving demands of hard labor, industrial combat and deep patterns of race/class division, the Hayden-Ray area was, and continues to be, central to the production of copper in Arizona. Hayden, Winkleman and Kearny have maintained close community ties and pride in their labor/union traditions even while enduring dislocation and changes brought on by shifting patterns of ownership and corporate functioning.

In Search of Hayden’s Past

If you spend time in the Hayden Library, a nerve center of the community, you’ll find all sorts of local documents and stories, which hold the collective history, and memory of the community. We found a high school student paper, which offered a look back at the town’s legacy and divided racial past.

Hayden life during its glory days was a beautiful mining town torn between two races. One race, which was richer than the other were called the Anglos, or the white people, the others were Mexicans. Hayden was the rich part of town; it contained a strip full of buildings, including a theater. San Miguel and San Pedro were the poor part of town where all the Mexicans lived. The Mexicans who lived in San Miguel were called ‘Sorumartos’ because they were more Indian and short. The Hispanics who lived in San Pedro were from different parts of Mexico and more Spaniard looking. Presently there are few Anglos living in the area, almost all the buildings are dead, yet each holds stories of the Mexicans’ troubles with racism during Hayden’s glory years. (“Hayden, What Life Was Like During Its Glory Days,” April 16, 2002)

Our young high school historian goes on to draw on local memories and observations – the segregated class rooms, the local branch of the KKK burning crosses in the 1950s, “the nice pool” open only to Anglos. Despite all of this, in 1958, Hayden celebrated its incorporation as an independent township by proudly receiving the All-American City designation of the National Municipal League. Hayden has endured much in its 100-plus years—and families, some of whom can trace their legacy back four generations–remember the price they have paid, even while celebrating the strengths and relationships engendered by small-town community life.

Hayden smelter from San PedroHayden smelter from San Pedro

Frank Amado is a retired school teacher, athletic coach and musician. The Amado family can trace its heritage in Southern Arizona back to the 1700’s. Frank’s father was brought to the community as a young child; he settled in San Pedro amidst a thriving Hispanic community, and raised his family there. Frank has many vivid and affectionate memories of San Pedro:

I didn’t watch a TV until I was 13 years old. So the radio was the main attraction for us. You know…listen to music and playing games around the neighborhood…we skated…There used to be a lot of donkeys…and we rode them as entertainment. Rode them to the river, rode them to the school sometimes.

Frank describes San Pedro as a thriving community.

The pool hall was the main activity of the miners…pool playing, card playing… everybody gathered, that was the gathering place for the miners. Miners: they work hard and they play hard!

Frank attended junior college in Eastern Arizona and then entered the military. When he completed his service he returned to college on the GI bill and graduated from Arizona State University. This prepared him to return to his home town to teach social studies and coach sports at the local junior high school.

Frank’s father and grandfather worked in the copper industry at a time when there was systematic discrimination against Mexican and Mexican-American workers.

The Mexican workers and the Anglo workers did the same type of work, but they got paid differently. The Anglos got a dollar more for doing the same work and the same amount of work. And that’s the way the company policy was..in those times discrimination was very strong.

After World War II many of the old segregated patterns that separated Anglo and Hispanic residents in Hayden/San Pedro collapsed.

After the Second World War when the soldiers came back, they put their foot down and said, “Enough is enough.” They fought for their rights…and things started getting better.

hayden-downtown-1940s-Hayden, AZ: Downtown 1940’s

The movie theater was desegregated. By the late 1960’s Hispanics were able to buy houses in formerly all-white parts of town. Hispanic workers began to receive equal wages with their Anglo counterparts and some were offered advancement into managerial situations. At the same time Anglos gradually began to leave Hayden—the white managers who continued to work at the smelter relocated their families and commuted from the expanding municipal areas around Phoenix. Unknown to the community, some patterns of discrimination would persist into the late 1980’s and ‘90s.

In the 1940’s Frank Amado’s father wrote a corrido, celebrating the San Pedro community. During one of our visits to Hayden, Frank sang the corrido for us:

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Atención, señores, lo que les voy a intonar,
El corrido San Pedro, el corrido San Pedro,
Yo les voy a cantar.

Entrando al San Pedro, ustedes miraran,
Las casas tumbadas, las casas tumbadas,
Pero no se cayen.

San Pedro lindo, San Pedro lindo, que tu estas,
La gente te quiere, la gente te quiere,
No olvidaran.

Por eso vienen, por eso vienen,
Lejos de aqui.
A verte, San Pedro,
La gente, San Pedro,
Te quiere a ti.

En el año de 1909 este campo empezo.
Con gente humilde, con gente humilde
Que de Mexico llego.

Ellos se acabaron,y los hijos quedaron,
Contentos y orgullosos, contentos y orgullosos
Que en San Pedro se crearon.

San Pedro lindo, San Pedro lindo, que tu estas,
La gente te quiere, la gente te quiere
No te olvidaran.

Por eso vienen, por eso vienen,
Lejos de aqui.
A verte, San Pedro,
La gente, San Pedro,
Te quiere a ti.

Attention sirs and ladies to what I am going to recite
The San Pedro corrido, the San Pedro corrido
I am going to sing for you.

Entering San Pedro you will see
Houses that are leaning, houses that are leaning,
But they don’t fall.

Beautiful San Pedro,beautiful San Pedro that you are,
The people love you, the people love you
They will not forget you.

That’s why they come, that’s why they come,
From far away.
To see you, San Pedro,
The people, San Pedro,
They love you.

In the year 1909 the town began
With humble people, with humble people,
Who came from Mexico.

They ended up here, and their children stayed
Happy and proud, happy and proud,
That in San Pedro they were raised.

Beautiful San Pedro, Beautiful San Pedro that you are,
The people love you, the people love you
They will not forget you.

That’s why they come, that’s why they come,
From far away.
To see you, San Pedro,
The people, San Pedro,
They love you.

Workplace and Environmental Hazards in Hayden

Besides archiving local stories and memories of the community, the Hayden Library also houses artifacts, records and news reports. In particular, old maps and news clippings tell the story of challenging working conditions and the changing landscape.

Since 1910 mine tailings (the first waste products from ore extraction) have been stored in giant mounds called impoundments. According to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, tailings disposal in this area in the early 20th century occurred at the rate of approximately 4,000 tons per day, increasing to 16,000 tons per day by 1952 and to 21,000 tons per day by 1960.

Over time the tailings mounds have become a pervasive and encroaching hazard. A 1988 article states,

Where the present disposal area in Hayden is now, there used to be farm land with alfalfa fields, cattle, several houses and a general mercantile store… These former sites are now buried under millions of tons of tailings. (Johanna Teer, 1988, pg. 9)

hayden-lit-tailingsHayden-tailings impoundments in late afternoon sun

Today, tailings impoundments resemble giant dunes, massed along the side of the road that connects Hayden and Winkleman to the Ray mine In 1972 a slope failure (landslide) measuring 500 feet across, and 30-50 feet deep occurred at one of the impoundments. Other failures have occurred over the years (http://www.azdeq.gov/environ/waste/sps/download/state/asarco.pdf), and many people in the community worry that a driving rainstorm or earthquake would destabilize the huge impoundments. Community members have also complained about Asarco’s unregulated emissions—the state regulates the particulate size of emissions but not the quantities of toxic emissions produced—and they warn of ASARCO’s persistent practice of cranking up the furnaces at night. In the 1980’s and 90’s, as concern about the danger from mine tailings and emissions continued to mount, there was also growing outrage about working conditions–from grim accidents to hazardous exposures on the job.

In 1990 Willie Craig, president of United Steelworkers Local 886 of Hayden conducted an investigation into health monitoring practices at ASARCO. Craig’s damning report, Asarco and Arsenic: The Right to Know, the Right to Live – A Case Study, was not to be found in the Hayden library. Instead we stumbled on it at the Chicano Small Manuscripts section of the Arizona State University Library in Tempe.

A quiet, yet insistent voice from the past, Craig’s report documented serious violations of worker and civil rights. As the report made clear, ASARCO’s national Medical Director, Charles Hine, based in San Francisco, had authored a policy of occupational health apartheid, a policy that created unequal standards of monitoring and protection for Hispanic and Anglo workers. While ASARCO claims that they revoked the policy around the time that Craig’s report was released, it nevertheless represents a remarkable throwback to early and mid-20th century discriminatory and unethical practices, where ethnic identity was used to manage and apportion risk.

Acting on a confidential warning issued by Asarco’s retiring physician, Craig began an investigation into what became known as “the Hispanic factor.” The investigation revealed that ASARCO at Hayden was systematically altering the lung function results of Hispanic workers that were mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Craig wrote,

If a Hispanic employee has a pulmonary function of 85% of capacity, when using the Company’s method, this employee is still rated as having 100% of pulmonary function because of the 15% margin the Company has in fact self-imposed upon all Hispanics being tested at the time.

Alarmed by the danger to its members posed by the company’s medical policy, the United Steelworkers contacted Dr. David Parkinson, a respected union physician from New York. Dr. Parkinson’s correspondence with ASARCO’s medical director is included in Craig’s report. In a letter to Hine, Dr. Parkinson confirmed that, “the predicated values in Hispanics were being reduced by 15%.”

Here are some significant excerpts from Craig’s investigation:

1) The lung function tests of Hispanic workers were systematically inflated by 15%.

2) Asarco’s medical director justified the doctored figures by claiming that Hispanic workers had a larger chest capacity than Anglos.

3) According to Craig, “During an OSHA inspection of the Asarco Hayden Plant conducted in 1988 it was found that the working environment of the Hayden Plant violated the present OSHA standard 109 times over. Realistically speaking, Local 886 believes that his figure hasn’t changed for the better, if anything it has either remained basically the same or at times gotten worse in nature.”

4) The x-rays taken of Hayden workers were often unreadable, perhaps due to faulty, poorly maintained equipment. Also, x-rays were not properly recorded or communicated to workers.

5) The pulmonary function testing equipment at Hayden had not been properly calibrated for several years.

6) The report challenged the company and its medical staff, concluding: “Asarco and other parties have conspired with a sense of intense maliciousness to distort, misrepresent and mislead its employees, the public sector and various state and federal agencies [withholding] important information needed to protect the work force and the surrounding communities from excessive arsenic exposure. Asarco and perhaps other parties have conspired jointly to look the other way and protect their interest regarding legal, moral and ethical responsibilities and have done so for a number of years.”

In April 1990 Local 886 reported on the “Hispanic Factor” in its publication, The Slag Dump. The Slag Dump, a member of the USWA Press Association, ran an extensive story to broadcast concerns to members in the region.

The Company has basically formed their own standards…Hispanics at the Hayden plant can suffer a 15% loss in lung function with no apparent ill effect…This is a direct form of racial discrimination and thus is viewed as a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by this local…The majority of those who work at the Hayden Plant are of Hispanic origin. When one compares other management techniques that have been imposed by management at the Hayden plant, such a discovery is not totally unthinkable. It is time that the community, the state and the nation become aware of the problems the copper workers face today.

The Asarco and Arsenic document, a compilation of reports, data, testimony, analysis and ethical argument is a very forceful and significant piece of work. It stands as the courageous, determined effort of a rank-and-file unionist, in connection with consulting physicians, to bring to light seriously disturbing practices. Soon after the Arizona Republic published an article about Willie Craig’s report, he became the target of company’s threats and efforts to silence him. The USWA supported Craig in filing charges of retaliation against ASARCO through OSHA provisions, but it’s not entirely clear how the situation was resolved. Local folks tell us that Willie Craig moved away. The company claims the Hispanic Factor policy was revoked. Unfortunately, the paper trail on ASARCO’s medical practices is not complete, and pressing questions remain. For instance, were the lung function tests of the primarily Hispanic workers at ASARCO’s Arizona mines and El Paso, Texas smelter also altered? The workers have the right to know.

Willie Craig’s report reminds us that past practices that were discriminatory and undermining of health may not be truly past. The Hispanic factor bears similarities to the infamous Tuskegee practice of NOT treating known African American syphilis patients from the 1940s to 1970s. An identifiable risk, with clear advisories for public health protections, was not attended to because of the ethnic identity of the people involved. Workplace safety, health and environment committees must remain ever vigilant and mindful of corporate policies, records, reports, data, referrals and professional consultations, and their potential to create profound impacts on worker health and the community environment.

Hayden Today

Today the community of Hayden numbers about 800 people, housed within approximately one square mile. Although the smelter is in full production, the community is experiencing hard times. In 2009 the median household income was $26,797, $22,000 less than the state median. The population has declined from 892 in 2000 to 808 in 2009. 85% of Hayden’s residents are Hispanic. Only 3.5% of Hayden’s adult population has attended college, and the unemployment rate in 2009 was 14%. (http://www.city-data.com/city/Hayden-Arizona.html) Hayden’s downtown consists of two blocks of boarded-up stores. The theater went out of business long ago; the schools were relocated to Winkleman, and the nearest grocery store is in Kearny. Families worry that the bleak physical and economic landscape won’t be enough to keep their children in Hayden. In 2008 we recorded a discussion with high school students from Hayden, San Pedro and Winkleman, and asked them about their perceptions of the community.

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Smelter Site is of Growing Concern: Community Response, Agency Moves

The Hayden/Winkelman community is caught in the classic “jobs-versus health and safety“ no-win situation. They need both, but most have felt cornered and without options. Even those who don’t work at ASARCO are dependent on the company to support the economy of the struggling community. Workers at the school district or the mini-mart know they cannot survive economically without ASARCO. This makes it difficult for community members to raise concerns about company policies. Still, questions about impacts on worker and family health and safety have haunted Hayden for decades.

hayden-ASARCO smelter todayhayden-ASARCO smelter today

While concerns about worker and community safety and health at ASARCO are not new, there is widespread agreement that conditions grew significantly worse when Grupo Mexico took over the operation of ASARCO in 2002. In July 2006 at a Steelworkers training in Phoenix, workers told us of dangerous conditions at the Hayden smelter caused by deteriorating facilities and equipment, poor training for new workers and inadequate safety and lockout procedures. The roof of a building had just collapsed; the company had ignored warnings that a collapse was likely to happen. A member of USW Local 886, described “bad structural steel conditions” in the plant (names of the workers have been withheld).

The steel is actually rotted to where it might have started out as 3/8 of an inch thick or half an inch thick or 5/8 of an inch thick. Now it’s down to 1/16th of an inch. In some places, it’s like paper. And these are structural steel that supports the main building frame…We’ve reported this to various supervisors, but it seems to fall on deaf ears.

The workers described a near-fatal accident in which two new employees were hit by cranes and seriously injured.

These guys had barely made a 90-day probation period…they’re going up there green…if you put your hand in the wrong place, step in the wrong place, it could be your life, a hand, you know? These poor guys are lucky they’re alive.

Two other workers were badly burned in an explosion; another was electrocuted; still another was decapitated by a conveyor belt.

In the morning…when I leave for work I’m not sure whether I’m going to come back at the end of the day because I don’t know what’s in store for me…And we leave everyday hoping to come back the same way we left. You know, intact.”

In 1994 Hayden’s smelter was #6 in the nation for TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) releases, “among the top 20 polluters nationwide” (Phoenix New Times, 12/3/98). It has been difficult getting agencies to respond to safety and health concerns. 1990’s state government studies found no conclusive links between exposures and cancer. Asarco funded an Arizona Department of Health Services study, asserting it would “confirm … there is little if no impact from the plant on the community” (Phoenix New Times, 4/29/99). Yet home-buyers had to sign waivers releasing previous owners from liability for hazardous dust exposures.

hayden-az-waste-pond-with-broken-pipeHayden, Az: Asarco waste pond with broken pipe

Despite the studies, Hayden residents have persistent concerns about the risks to community health and they have pointed out the frequency of cancer, pulmonary illness, heart disease, and miscarriages in their community. The level of community concern became intense enough for 253 residents to organize a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against ASARCO. The suit languished in court but was eventually bundled into the Asarco bankruptcy process. The bankruptcy court awarded $4.8 million to the claimants, with over 60% going for legal fees. Like other communities who attempted the lawsuit strategy, many felt betrayed and disappointed at the pittance they’ve been awarded.

With little regional or state support, some residents hoped that the EPA would carry out its own independent investigation. By 2004, the EPA was conducting tests in Hayden/Winkelman under its Emergency Response provision, despite community skepticism and unwelcoming responses from company officials and state and local authorities. Even the union hesitated, concerned about the potential loss of jobs and about bringing negative attention to an already beleaguered and vulnerable community. Still EPA Region 9 staff labored on with its investigation, spurred by the growing evidence of serious hazard. Over 1000 soil samples were collected. Water and air samples were also taken.

Starting in 2007, EPA staff held public meetings in Hayden and Winkleman to inform the community about its test results, which documented significantly elevated levels of arsenic, lead, copper, cadmium and chromium in air and soil.

These concentrations indicate the arsenic in Hayden air is about 60 times above what would be expected in an area unaffected by smelting activities.”(Asarco Hayden Plant Site, September 2008, pg.2 )

The EPA pointed to ASARCO as the party responsible for the contamination. The agency was prepared to declare Hayden a Superfund site and place it on the National Priorities List, but it encountered opposition from company, public and union leaders, as well as from community residents. ASARCO argued that NPL listing was unnecessary and that the company could manage the cleanup without federal interference—although ASARCO officials also questioned whether their smelter was, in fact, responsible for the toxic levels of contaminants that had been found. The Steelworkers expressed their concern that NPL listing would depress real estate values and cripple economic development in Hayden; they also argued that the bankruptcy–which had separated ASARCO from Grupo Mexico and engineered a favorable contract between the company and the union–made ASARCO a more trustworthy community partner. Facing widespread opposition to Superfund listing, the EPA forged a compromise agreement with the state and ASARCO: the company would assume responsibility for cleanup of area soils, but the EPA would monitor the cleanup and continue to inform community residents about potential hazards.

At a July 2009 meeting in Hayden, the EPA staff delivered more detailed reports. About 650 properties in the two adjoining towns had been sampled, with 250 requiring cleanup due to excessive levels of arsenic, copper and lead. One of Hayden’s few parks, adjoining the Hayden public library, on the edge of the smelter property, had been cleaned, and supplied with new grass and playground equipment. The work moves along, although at a slow pace, with continuing monitoring and selective cleanup of area properties.

Today 840 people live in Hayden, 435 in Winkleman. The tiny communities continue to be haunted by a past that was marked by unjust, discriminatory practices, a dramatic lack of transparency and a very weak display of commitment to public safety and health by Arizona government agencies. The research and organizing efforts that may eventually improve the quality of life in Hayden and Winkleman are due entirely to the efforts of dedicated workers, courageous community members and a few committed EPA staff. Yet Hayden, the last smelter site in the US, a town built to provide the nation with one of its primary industrial resources, should be receiving widespread attention. The workers and residents of Hayden and Winkleman deserve respect and support from labor and environmental advocates—for their efforts on behalf of workplace and environmental justice and because of their legitimate needs for community and worker health and safety.

Our focus in this project has been on the mining/smelting towns of Hayden and Winkleman. But the impacts of Asarco’s operation are felt around the state. Two Indian tribes are named as creditors in the bankruptcy: O’odham tribal lands have been damaged by the Asarco Mission Complex; and near Casa Grande, on the Gila River Indian Reservation, the Sacaton mine is notorious for its blowing dust and particulates. As part of its bankruptcy settlement, ASARCO funds will help enhance a public safety facility in Casa Grande. Meanwhile there is renewed concern about wind-blown dust near other ASARCO mines and smelters, including the Hayden smelter. In January 2010, Pima County and EPA officials spoke to concerned residents. ASARCO faced some stiff fines, but Tom Aldrich, ASARCO’s Vice President for Environmental Affairs, reassured the assembled crowd that “across the board these [dusts] are very low in metals, about what you’d expect here, comparable to the background levels in soils.” Meanwhile, news reports indicate that state soil scientists have a re-energized interest in dust-born metals and are looking further into mine contaminants across the state. The search for knowledge goes on in the land where copper continues to reign.

Memento of former strike--Hayden--movie theater, now closedHayden, AZ downtown: movie theater (now closed)


Arsenic and Asarco: The Right to Know, the Right to Live – A Case Study, prepared by the Investigations Committee, William Craig, United Steelworkers Local 886; 1990.

Bustamente, Antonio. “Mexican Mine Worker Communities in Arizona: Spatial and Social Impacts of Arizona’s Copper Mining,” Estudios Sociales, v. 5, #10, 1995, pgs. 27-54.

Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Superfund: In the Eye of the Storm, March 2009. pgs. 32-33: Arizona site: Hayden-Winkelman: “Fighting the Long Fight for Health in Copper Country”

Craig, Willie. “Is Asarco Practicing Racial Discrimination?” The Slag Dump, April 1990; pgs 1 – 3.

Don’t Waste Arizona, an environmental organization that has lent technical support to the Hayden community and publicized their story; information, films, photos. http://www.dontwastearizona.org/

“EPA to discuss sample program tonight, tomorrow,” Copper Basin News, January 9, 2008

“EPA Releases “ASARCO Hayden Plant Investigation Results,” EPA Asarco Hayden Plant Site, September 2008.

“Public Meeting: Residential Yard Cleanup and Future Activities,” EPA Asarco Hayden Plant Site, July 2009.

“Asarco Hayden Plant”: description, history, potentially responsible parties, documents, reports, contacts, community involvement. This site provides detailed profiles of mine/smelter ownership and operations.     http://www.epa.gov/region9/AsarcoHaydenPlant

Franchine, Philip. “Mine dust not dangerous, residents told,” Green Valley News, January 30, 2010

Interview with Frank Amado, conducted by Anne Fischel, Lin Nelson and John Regan. Hayden, Arizona, January 2008.

Interview with Student Council members, conducted by Anne Fischel, Lin Nelson and John Regan. Winkleman, Arizona, January 2008.

Lopez, Leonor. Forever Sonora, Ray, Barcelona: A Labor of Love. n.d.

“New Casa Grande Public Safety Facility Enhanced through Asarco Donation,”

www.trivalleycentral.com August 19, 2010

Parrish, Michael. Mexican Workers, Progressives and Copper: The Failure of Industrial Democracy in Arizona during the Wilson Years, Chicano Research Publications, 1979.

Rosenblum, Jonathon. Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miners Strike of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations in America, Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1995.

Seefeldt, Douglas. “Creating Kearny: Forging a Historical Identity for a Central Arizona Mining Community,” Faculty Publications, Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005, http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1025&context=historyfacpub

Sicotte, Diane. “Profit, Pollution and Racism: The Development of Environmental Injustice in a Copper Smelter Town,” Human Ecology Review, v. 16, #2, 2009, pgs. 141-150.

Teer, Johanna Seeley, “Hayden Takes Steps to Have Its Own Identity,” Copper Basin News, 1988 series.

“What’s in the Smoke? A Breathers’ Guide to Douglas Smelter Pollution,” The Cochise Smelter Study Group, Bisbee AZ 1982

Wootton, Susan. “Sonora Querida! Beloved Sonora,” Copper Basin News, 1988.

Sonora Photographs from the collection of Frankie and Chuy Olmos, Kearny, Arizona.

Useful Documents:

Public Health Assessment, ASARCO Hayden Smelter Site

DMMR – Arizona Mining Update 1999 – Jul 2000

Ambient Groundwater Quality of the Lower San Pedro Basin, An ADEQ 2000 Baseline Study




Assault on Labor in Cananea

This article, about the struggle of Mexican Miners Union, against Grupo Mexico and the Mexican government, is reprinted by permission of Dollars and Sense.

Crossing the Border to Cananea: High Stakes and Teachable Moments for North American Workers

This report was written by our solidarity delegation to Cananea, sponsored by the United Association for Labor Education.


David Bacon’s report on US-Mexican labor solidarity


David Bacon’s website of articles and photographs, many about Cananea


Publications by the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network about health and safety conditions at the Cananea mine

Cananea Copper Mine, An International Effort to Improve Hazardous Working Conditions in Mexico – IJOEH Jan09

CananeaOHSReport – 2007 – Maquila Health and Safety Support Network





A Worm in Every Pot

This 13-minute documentary was made to support a children’s plant project in Anapra, New Mexico. Anapra is located just minutes from El Paso and was severely contaminated by emissions from ASARCO’s El Paso smelter. Read More »

Asarco’s Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy as Corporate Makeover: ASARCO demonstrates how to avoid environmental responsibility

This article about ASARCO’s bankruptcy, by Mara Kardas-Nelson, Lin Nelson and Anne Fischel, is reprinted with permission of Dollars and Sense magazine.

A VERY CLEAR “NO!” by Carlos Rodriguez

Carlos Rodriguez, El Paso, TexasCarlos Rodriguez, El Paso, Texas

Carlos Rodriguez lives and works in El Paso, Texas. He worked for ASARCO for 30 years as an electrician. Carlos is a leader in the Ex-Asarco Employees Group which fought to prevent ASARCO from renewing its air permit in 2008. Carlos wrote this essay during the air permit struggle. Read More »