In the 1970’s and 1980’s Asarco’s plants around the U.S. were receiving heightened scrutiny from local, state and federal officials, workers, and environmental groups. In the early 1970’s high levels of arsenic were discovered in the urine of children living in Ruston, Washington, next to an Asarco copper smelter, and a University of Washington researcher found that Ruston-area soils had eight times the amount of arsenic as the national average. Members of the United Steelworkers union in Ruston created a newspaper, “The Smelterworker,” whose first issue explored the problem of arsenic exposure. According to Rodger Jones, the newspaper’s first editor, “If they had concerns about the kids in Ruston and their exposure to arsenic, what about people working in the plant? There’s got to be some concern there!” Eventually the entire town of Ruston was declared a Superfund site.

Hayden, AZ: ASARCO smelter-fugitive emissions

In the early 1980’s the National Public Health Service found that cadmium from Asarco’s Globeville, Colorado plant, had severely damaged workers’ health and threatened local neighborhoods; the plant was closed and several housing projects were demolished because of concerns about cadmium contamination. Asarco facilities in New Jersey, California, New Mexico and Arizona were also closed.

In 1989 a Steelworkers local in Hayden, Arizona discovered that Asarco had been systematically falsifying the results of lung function tests for its Hispanic workers, inflating them by 15% in order to conceal damage to their lungs. The union brought in Dr. David Parkinson from the Department of Community and Preventative Medicine, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, to investigate. In a letter to ASARCO’s medical director, Charles Hine, Dr. Parkinson listed a number of pressing medical concerns, including the following:

Hayden, AZ: ASARCO viewed from hilltop

(1) ASARCO’s X-ray machine was not adequate to test larger individuals, and the results of the X-rays were not being properly reported to OSHA.

(2) Pulmonary function testing equipment was obsolete and had not been calibrated for at least two years, so that the readings it produced could not be trusted to be accurate.

(3) The medical records did not consistently show blood lead and urine arsenic test results.

(4) Chemistry test results suggested that workers had illnesses like diabetes or liver enzyme abnormalities—but there was no evidence that the workers had been informed.

In an extensive report, entitled “ARSENIC and ASARCO: The right to know, the right to live,” Willie Craig, President of the local, wrote, “If a Hispanic employee has a pulmonary function of 85% of capacity, when using the Company’s method, this employee is still rated has having 100% of pulmonary function…This practice instills a false sense of security within the employee.” And Craig added, “It seems this practice could have a direct effect on the higher than normal lung cancer rate in the Hayden/Winkleman area” (emphasis in the original document).

Craig also raised questions about ASARCO’s fugitive emissions and “the new technology of the flash furnace that began operation in 1983” and which “has greatly increased the amounts and concentrations of carcinogenic substances produced by the Hayden Plant.” He concluded:

hayden-ASARCO smelter today

“It is my belief that the investigation performed has shown that ASARCO has willingly misrepresented medical evidence as gathered through the medical surveillance program at the Hayden Plant Clinic…Also ASARCO has conspired…to distort, misrepresent and mislead its employees, the public sector and various state and federal agencies [regarding] important information needed to protect the workforce and surrounding communities from excessive arsenic exposure.”

In the mid-1990’s the Copper Fist Coalition in Hayden, Arizona organized over 200 people to file a class action lawsuit against Asarco for serious health impacts, including cancers and birth defects believed to have resulted from Asarco’s emissions. The suit was thrown out in early court hearings, then reinstated. It was eventually settled during ASARCO’s bankruptcy. The community was awarded $4.8 million, of which 60% is estimated to have gone to attorneys to pay legal fees.


Rocky Mt Arsenal, Colorado: Napalm Production Building

In the early 1990’s, with copper prices falling and many plants shuttered, Asarco contracted with the Department of Defense to accept hazardous waste at its subsidiary, Encycle, in Corpus Christi, Texas. The waste came from DOD facilities at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Rocky Flats in Colorado and Tooele, Utah, among others, where napalm, saarin nerve gas, cluster bombs, plutonium and white phosphorous had been produced.

The liquid “quench water” waste was shipped to Encycle, where a concentrate was made and shipped it to Asarco smelters for incineration.

In 1998 the EPA discovered that Encycle/Asarco, rather than storing the Department of Defense-originated hazardous waste, had been illegally burning it at its East Helena, Montana and El Paso plants. It is likely that the waste was shipped to other smelters as well. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) some industrial activities can be regulated as recycling rather than waste management. Encycle and Asarco insisted that the materials they received from the Department of Defense had significant amounts of copper and therefore qualified as replacement for copper ore. EPA concluded, however, that Asarco had engaged in “sham recycling”—incinerating materials with no discernable copper content. The EPA report clearly documented this charge, demonstrating that for almost a decade at least 247 shipments, totaling approximately 5,079 tons of hazardous waste “that had virtually no metals value” had been received at Encycle and “incorporated into Ecycle alleged ‘products.’ The EPA wrote, “This activity, plain and simple, was illegal treatment and disposal of hazardous waste, since the wastes could not have contributed in any significant way to the production of the metals concentrates.”

Rocky Mt Arsenal, Colorado: Mustard Gas Production (#13)

In 1998 the EPA and Asarco signed two consent decrees, designed to resolve concerns about Asarco’s operations and ensure compliance with federal regulations. The first dealt with general operations, safety procedures and training at all Asarco’s remaining plants. The second specifically addressed the illegal incineration of hazardous waste. Under the terms of the two agreements Asarco was to submit to regular inspections, produce periodic reports, strengthen its employee safety procedures, and pay over $50 million in fines. In El Paso the company made a commitment to the City of El Paso to spend $370,000 a year to pave city roads.

Under the terms of agreement Asarco did not acknowledge any culpability for hazardous waste incineration. (In 2006 Tom Aldrich, Vice President for Environmental Affairs at Asarco, restated the company’s official position: that the materials received from Encycle “contained recyclable quantities of copper” and were “not particularly dangerous to human health or the environment.”)

The settlement agreement reached by Asarco and EPA did not include any provisions for testing workers, soil, air, water or community members for exposure to potential contaminants in the Department of Defense wastes. The El Paso community also was not informed about the illegal incineration of hazardous waste. It would be 8 years before the people of the El Paso border region began to discover the truth.

Encycle: Rail Car for El Paso


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