CITY of EL PASO and STATE of TEXAS vs. ASARCO: The FATE of SMELTERTOWN

In 1972, as medical research teams were beginning to study blood lead levels in El Paso’s children, court proceedings began between the City of El Paso and State of Texas on one side, and Asarco on the other. One focus of the case made by the city and state was the level of contamination in Smeltertown, the Hispanic community located beneath Asarco’s stacks.

Smeltertown fell entirely within Zone One of Dr. Landrigan’s study. Many of Smeltertown’s male residents worked at Asarco; some families had lived there for generations, since crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In her study of Smeltertown, Monica Perales argues that ASARCO, through its Mexican subsidiaries and trans-national shipping routes, helped to create a “larger industrial zone” that transformed Mexicans into industrial workers and encouraged Mexico-to-U.S. migration (Perales, 5-6). Some workers and their families followed the shipping routes across the border, settled in Smeltertown, and found work at Asarco or in nearby industries. The residents of Smeltertown built and owned their homes, but did not own the land on which their homes were located. Sewage and water systems were built by residents. Originally outside city limits, by 1972 Smeltertown had become part of the growing city of El Paso; it was an embarrassment to city officials and the company. According to Daniel Solis, a former resident, “Smeltertown essentially was an eyesore for El Paso.”

Smeltertown was a close-knit, vibrant community. Monica Perales maintains that despite their marginal status, Smeltertown residents experienced a strong sense of identity that “resulted from a legacy of habitation…and was rooted in common language, immigration, work experience, socioeconomic conditions, religious traditions and cultural activities. These elements bound them together as a family, and contributed to what was a sense of ‘emotional ownership’ that Esmeltianos felt for Smeltertown” (Perales, 5).

The residents of Smeltertown experienced the discomforts of living with Asarco’s emissions on a daily basis. Sulfur dioxide, a major byproduct of smelting, creates foul odors and can cause breathing problems and irritation of the eyes, throat and lungs. Daniel Solis, a former resident of Smeltertown, recalls:

In July and August…our folks would bring us into the house, because the smoke, the pollution, the sulfur, would settle into our community for about 2 or 3 hours every day in the mid-day when there was no breeze to take that away. When we would breathe that, we could not be outside because we were constantly coughing. So nobody can tell me that there was no ill effect on the majority of the folks that lived in Smeltertown.

Mary Romero writes that Smeltertown families tried early on to get the city to respond to problems of pollution.

Residents had organized in the 1950’s in an unsuccessful attempt to get the city to pave Smeltertown streets and thus control the dust problem. Several parents had sought medical attention for children born with brain damage and other illnesses; not one case, however, had been diagnosed as lead poisoning. Past attempts to label health problems as pollution-related illnesses had been unsuccessful (Romero 35).

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The residents of Smeltertown were well aware of the discomforts from dust and sulfur dioxide emissions, but they were unaware of the dangers that lead exposure posed to themselves and their children. Initially the families reacted to the disclosures of lead contamination with great concern and cooperated with the research teams and doctors who came to test and treat the children (Romero, 35). Some children were taken out of the community to be tested—Daniel Solis’ 4 year-old sister was taken to Chicago although, as, Daniel recounts, “She had never been to the airport, much less on an airplane.” Most of the children were treated at local hospitals, using chelation therapy, a drug regimen designed to remove heavy metals from the blood. The treatment is painful, and can be prolonged.

Daniel recalls that his young siblings were terrified of the painful injections. Because of the pain and fear experienced by the children, some families withdrew their children from treatment. Romero writes that parents felt “unable to justify the painful treatment,” because the lead in the children’s blood did not produce perceptible (clinical) symptoms. Some families concluded that the children’s bodies had adapted to lead and were being made sick by chelation, not by lead exposure. One of her informants said,

When my children were given the medicine, they got sick. They gave the children shots in the morning and by the afternoon they were sick. [We] believed that removing the lead may have made the children sick (quoted in Romero, 34)

During the trial, Ken Nelson, Director of Environmental Sciences for Asarco, said that issues of lead contamination in Smeltertown had been “overlooked” by the company (Shapleigh, 15). Asarco officials said it had “never occurred” to them to include Smeltertown in the company’s air pollution monitoring system (Shapleigh, 15). A formidable team of trained physicians and researchers testified about the health impacts on children living in Smeltertown. When the defense ended its case, Asarco chose not to present a defense. Instead, in 1972, the parties agreed to a settlement agreement that included fines, commitments to install new emissions control equipment, and a fund for medical care for children with elevated blood levels.

Perales argues that in the process leading to the legal settlement the needs and desires of many Esmeltianos were ignored. She writes, “While the company and city argued health and environmental policy, Smeltertown residents were concerned with preserving their community…In attending community meetings and telling their stories to the press, the residents continually stated their refusal to move and their desire to maintain a way of life that had existed for generations.” Ultimately, Asarco and the City reached an agreement over the objections of Smeltertown residents, that community members should be evicted and the community destroyed. Because the residents of Smeltertown did not own the land on which their homes were built, they were not eligible for relocation benefits (Romero 31). Some residents were eligible for public housing, and the city arranged for them to have priority access to new public housing projects. Others simply moved away.

Mary Romero points out that the demolition of Smeltertown represented the least expensive solution for the city and Asarco. She writes, “Decontamination of the area and monitoring the health of Smeltertown residents demanded expensive economic commitments, not only from ASARCO, but from the city as well” (Romero, 31). She points to a statement by Asarco’s physician that the continuation of Smeltertown would have required a greater commitments of funds and services than either the city or company was willing to provide.

If these families elect to move, it will of course simplify my job in relation to their continued exposure. If they elect to remain and are allowed to remain, then I think our interests for their children and their families should provide more than dust control. It should also provide drainage, it should provide garbage collection; it should provide sewage disposal; all of these factors as far as I am concerned are important to their makeup and their health (quoted in Romero 31-32).

The demolition of Smeltertown did not resolve the problems of Asarco’s emissions. According to Romero, the issue was first defined as a community health problem, but was later redefined as a problem of lead poisoning specific to Smeltertown. She writes,

Restricting government action to Smeltertown fulfilled several objectives for various local interest groups. Business and industry were reassured that environmental policies would not threaten future growth. Workers were assured that pollution abatement would be placed second to economic stability, and therefore the chances of plant shutdowns or corporate flight were lessened…And city and state officials were able to ignore contamination and possible health threats in other parts of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico (Romero, 27-28).

Daniel Solis argues that the eradication of Smeltertown destroyed a significant part of Mexican-American history in El Paso. Like Romero, he points out that the solution chosen by the city and the company redirected attention away from the wider problems of contamination of children, workers and communities in the region. The problems resulting from Asarco’s emissions have resurfaced continually over the years. Today, they continue to be the focus of community struggles with the company, as community members press for information about the reach and extent of contamination on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Shortly after the trial concluded, business interests organized to defeat Mayor Bert Williams who had helped to spearhead the suit against Asarco.

In 1978, 5 years after the court settlement in which Asarco agreed to install new emissions control equipment, Dr. Bernard Rosenblum of the El Paso City-County Health Department wrote that El Paso continued to have one of the highest levels of lead in air in the United States. He warned that air lead concentrations in the city were increasing.

In 1979, after several postponements, Asarco finally completed the installation of emissions control equipment at the El Paso plant. In 1982 the zinc plant was shut down; in 1985, the lead plant was closed; in 1986 the cadmium plant was demolished. In 1989 Asarco approved the expansion of copper production facilities at the El Paso plant.

Sources:

  • Perales, Monica. Smeltertown: A Biography of a Mexican-American Community, 1880-1973. PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 2004.
  • Romero, Mary, “The Death of Smeltertown: A Case Study of Lead Poisoning in a Chicano Community,” in The Chicano Struggle, Bilingual Press, 1984
  • Shapleigh, Eliot. Asarco in El Paso: September 2008. El Paso, Texas
  • Interview with Dr. Philip Landrigan, September 2009, New York City, New York
  • Interview with Daniel Solis, excerpted from the film, Borders of Resistance (dir. Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson, forthcoming, fall 2011)
  • See also, Perales, Monica. Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  • Many thanks to Alex Becker for his invaluable research assistance.

Article URL: http://www.theirminesourstories.org/?p=360