Public Health and the Environment

Terminology in article: Commencement Bay, Smelter
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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.

“Asarco settlement money funds new soil cleanups.” WA Department of Ecology press release June 30, 2010.

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.

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.

“Contaminated Globeville May Get Second Chance: Multi-Jurisdictional Agreement Moving Forward,” 7-News, Denver, March 23, 2011.

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.

El Paso docs – scientists’ statement

El Paso Get the Lead Out Blog. 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.

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.   Photos, events, news, strategy.

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

Hazmaps. 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.

“Lead Astray: Bush Administration stymies added protection,” Environmental Working Group.

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.

“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

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).

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.”

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.

ToxFacts. Basic information, Frequently Asked Questions. Lead, arsenic, other metals.

ToxTown. Some basic public orientation to toxics, local sources, contaminants, government resources and remedies.

“Toxic Waste and Superfund: Cleaning Up Severe Environmental Hazards.” A collection of reports and statements.

US- Mexico Border Environmental Health Initiative (BEHI).

US – Mexico Border 2012 Program, EPA.

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