Asarco-Ruston, WA. Workers in Yard

By the 1970’s there were growing concerns about health and safety issues at ASARCO’s Ruston plant. The work was known to be hard and dangerous, but high wages and an active union sustained the workers, especially when jobs were particularly dirty or difficult.

Rodger Jones was hired at Asarco in 1965. At first he worked as a skimmer helper. The skimmer would open the furnace to skim off impurities from the molten ore. The impurities, or slag, would be poured into railroad cars, driven out to the bay, and dumped.  As it cooled, the slag formed a solid metallic substance similar to congealed lava. Over time the slag dumped from Asarco’s furnaces built up the tideflats and extended the land areas around the bay.

Skimming was dangerous work.

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Occasionally the skimmer was unable to plug up the furnace, and a runaway was created, where molten copper spilled on the floor. Someone would have to cross the pool of hot, liquid metal to seal the furnace and stop the runaway. Rodger was badly injured during a runaway, and left the plant. He returned in 1967.

I started going to union meetings…You’d listen to people in the lunchroom and if you weren’t a union member, you weren’t welcome. So I decided I wanted to be part of it, I wanted to be welcome, so I joined the union. Didn’t have a union background, didn’t know a lot about unions, but started getting interested, and started looking at some of the safety concerns and the health concerns.

Like his fellow workers Rodger was familiar with some of the health and safety risks. He had seen that new workers were often sent to the roaster ovens (where the first contaminants were removed) or to the arsenic plant itself. The Ruston smelter received the bulk of its ores from the Philippines; the ores were heavily contaminated with arsenic, and the smelter extracted the arsenic and re-sold it commercially.

And for some people, their skin couldn’t take it [the arsenic]. They would get bad dermatitis and…little boils—there was just a real bad reaction.

Rodger had some near misses while working on the feed floor above the furnace. The feed floor was made up of four-foot square gratings–below it, larry cars transported ore to be dropped into the furnace and smelted. When the ore was dropped in the furnace, it created “blowback,” a white sulfur cloud.

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ASARCO’s sulfur dioxide emissions were a recognized hazard, both in the plant and in the community. The potential for damage from arsenic was less well-known or understood. The Tacoma smelter was one of the largest producers of arsenic in the world. In studies conducted in the early 1970’s by researchers from the University of Washington, ambient arsenic concentrations in Ruston/Tacoma were found to be eight times the national average.* Then, in 1972, Dr. Samuel Milham, Director of the Washington State Health Department, found elevated arsenic levels in the urine of Ruston children living near the smelter smokestack. These research findings initiated a local, and ultimately, a national effort to create a standard for industrial exposure to arsenic.* *

Rodger and two co-workers decided to start a newsletter, The Smelterworker. The first issue, printed in 1972, featured Dr. Milham’s research. Concerned about health impacts in the community and their implications for workers in the plant, Rodger began to investigate. He went to Olympia to interview Dr. Milham.

I wanted to interview him because I was saying, ‘If they have concerns about the kids in Ruston and their exposure to arsenic, what about people working in the plant? You know, there’s got to be some concern there!’ That interview, and a lot of subsequent research opened my eyes quite a bit. And the first thing I found out was that our doctor, Doctor Pinto, was the foremost authority on arsenic exposure in the United States.

Q: He was the staff doctor at Asarco?

A: Yes, he was. And all the literature I was doing research on kept pointing to him as the foremost authority.

Q: Had he ever talked to you about arsenic?

A: He never talked to anybody about anything.

The Smelterworker was tackling some of the major issues ASARCO workers faced on the job. Milham’s study had opened the door for workers, community residents and researchers to inquire into the health impacts from exposure to the contaminants produced by smelting, especially arsenic. Dr. Pinto’s studies, published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals, were based on ASARCO personnel records, records that should have been confidential and protected. Furthermore, they consistently asserted that arsenic caused only minimal—and temporary—damage to the bodies of exposed ASARCO workers. In 1963, the same year that Sherri Forch and her husband settled in Ruston, Dr. Pinto, ASARCO Medical Director and B.M. Bennett, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, published a study in the Archives of Environmental Health Journal, entitled “Effect of Arsenic Trioxide Exposure on Mortality.” This was one of approximately 10 articles, published over 15 years by Pinto and his various associates, which dealt with the effects of arsenic exposure on workers at the Ruston/Tacoma smelter. The 1963 study examined causes of death (as reported by the attending physician to the life insurance company retained and funded by Asarco) among 229 smelter employees. The study concluded, “there was no evidence that chronic arsenic trioxide exposure of the amount described in this study is a cause of systemic cancer in humans.”

Some years later Pinto was forced to acknowledge that while the cause of death given by the attending physician in his study was rarely “cancer,” it was often listed as an illness resulting from complications caused by cancer. Thus, in 1977 Pinto and four co-writers published a revised study of 527 ASARCO retirees which found that “overall morality of this cohort…was “12.2% higher than for males of the same area, at the same ages, and in the same time period. The excess mortality was due chiefly to respiratory cancer, which was three times the expected, and was not due to cigarette smoking.” This study conclusively tied lung cancer to arsenic exposure.

But in 1972, when Rodger first began to publish The Smelterworker, clear data did not exist about mortality rates from arsenic exposure. The union hesitated to endorse the newsletter. Rodger remembers,

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After several months, however, the local union leadership made a decision to support the production and funding of The Smelterworker. Ultimately, The Smelterworker won three national awards and became a source of pride to the local and the international. Rodger was elected to the local’s safety committee and continued to monitor safety conditions in the plant. But many workers continued to fear that pressure to reduce emissions and strengthen safety measures would force the company to close, a fear Asarco frequently exploited.

The threat of closing down was always hanging over our heads. The concern was the union didn’t want to be the one to put the last nail in the coffin. So they were very concerned.

That fear was real. In that 9-month strike, in 1967, I watched good friends of mine in their ‘60’s that lost their homes. Lost their credit…lost their families because of divorce. They were willing to fight for their jobs, but they sacrificed. Seeing that, and seeing what happened to other people, that fear was real. If you worked at a plant for 30 years and it’s all you know, it’s industrial, you know, you’re not ready to quit and become a baker. You just don’t have the skill-set.

Asarco attempted to use employees’ fears to divide the workers and silence safety concerns. Rodger remembers,

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*See Sullivan, Marianne, “The Struggle to Regulate the Tacoma Smelter: 1900-1985,”in the Community Stories section of this website

**See Sullivan, Marianne, “Contested Science and Exposed Workers: ASARCO and the Occupational Standard for Inorganic Arsenic,” Public Health Reports 2007 July-August; 122(4): 541-547. Also in the Public Health section of this website.

Interview with Rodger Jones. Tacoma, Washington, June 2006.

Pinto, S, Bennett, B.M., “Effect of Arsenic Trioxide Exposure on Mortality.” Archives of Enviornmental Health, Vol. 7, Nov. 1963, 583-591.

Pinto, S., Enterline, P., Henderson, V., Varner, M, “Mortality Experience in Relation to a Measured Arsenic Trioxide Exposure.” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 19, 1977, 127-130.

Photograph used by permission of the Tacoma Public Library

Useful Documents:

The Smelter Worker – March 1973-reducedsize

The Smelter Worker – July 1973-reducedsize

The Smelter Worker – January 1974 – reducedsize

The Smelter Worker – March 1974-reducedsize

The Smelter Worker – February 1975-reducedsize

The Smelter Worker – October 1975-reducedsize

The Social Costs of Air Pollution Control Options at the Asarco Tacoma Smelter – May 1978

Ruston – the town a smelter built – 1980 Dec 27 – TNT

Now Entering Ruston – 1997 Apr24-May1 – Tacoma Weekly – reducedsize

Asarco cleanup nears completion in Ruston – 2005 Jun 19 – TNT

Asarco abandons cleanups – 2005 Aug 19 – The Olympian

Text Message from a Toxic-Waste Site – May 26 2009 – The Stranger Newspaper

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