About The Project
HOW WE GOT STARTED:
Their Mines, Our Stories began in a class we taught together at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. We wanted to understand how communities thought about the economic, environmental and health issues they experienced as a result of living and working close to a mine or smelter. At first we focused on our neighboring communities of Ruston and Tacoma, where an ASARCO smelter operated for almost 100 years before closing in 1985. In the mid-1990's Ruston became one of the nation's first Superfund sites. By 2005, when we began to pay regular visits to Ruston, most of ASARCO's buildings had been demolished, extensive remediation had taken place (although it was not complete), and plans were underway to sell the former industrial site to a developer. But ASARCO's legacy--what had happened in Ruston, what it meant, and how it should be remembered--was still a source of tension and controversy.
Over time, as we learned more about ASARCO, we realized that we were seeing in Ruston was a small part of a national and international story. When ASARCO declared bankruptcy in summer 2005, we reached out to other mining/smelting communities. We learned of attempts in Hayden, Arizona, to document illnesses that residents believed were linked to ASARCO's emissions. In El Paso, Texas, we learned about efforts by a coalition of former ASARCO workers, environmental advocates, concerned residents, and public officials to prevent ASARCO from re-opening a shuttered smelter. In Cananea, Mexico, we learned about a prolonged strike of the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers to resist efforts by ASARCO's new owner, Grupo Mexico, to dismantle industrial and environmental safety protections, close the public hospital, and replace the proud union with a "white" or "company" union.
LEARNING ABOUT ASARCO:
ASARCO is not unique among U.S. corporations. But there are factors that make it especially significant—the long arc of its history and wide reach of its operations (see our Timeline), the contentious nature of its interactions with citizens, workers and public agencies (see Community Stories), its attempts to influence science and public policy (see Public Health), and its precedent-setting bankruptcy (see the Bankruptcy section).
By the time ASARCO filed for bankruptcy in 2005, there were an estimated 95 sites in the U.S. alone which it had promised to remediate. ASARCO’s bankruptcy-as-corporate-reorganization is a disturbing forecast of what corporations can do to escape their responsibilities to the workers and communities they have used and abused. In its preparations for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, ASARCO was sold to its Mexican subsidiary which then purchased ASARCO’s lucrative Peruvian mines at below-market prices. This shifted ASARCO’s assets across the border to Mexico, out of reach of U.S. unions and courts, and left its many liabilities to be negotiated down during the bankruptcy process. Once a U.S. company with holdings on almost every continent, ASARCO is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Grupo Mexico, the Mexican company it helped to create. In turn, Grupo Mexico, one of the largest copper producers in the world, is leading the assault on workers’ rights in Mexico, and systematically unraveling the social contract with the communities where it operates.
Our multi-media project is working to research, document and analyze this complex story. We have been frequent visitors to several ASARCO-impacted communities, as well as to Cananea. We have been privileged to spend time with union activists, workers and former workers, environmentalists, public health advocates, agency staff, public officials and community residents. We’re grateful to the people who supported our research and filming, guided us through their communities, shared their stories with us, and allowed us to participate in their ongoing work, learning and struggle. Our project has also been helped immeasurably by the work of the many dedicated researchers, writers, photographers, occupational health specialists, union activists, and citizen researchers who contributed to our collective knowledge about ASARCO and about the dilemmas faced by communities as they attempt to unearth and challenge its toxic legacy.
We thank Johan Genberg who patiently guided us through the process of creating our first website. Alex Becker, an extraordinary research assistant and collaborator, scanned and indexed many of the materials used on this site. Ry Pruett, worked with us to give our site a more contemporary look.
No researcher, writer or filmmaker works alone; our work is made possible by a web of relationships in which we've been privileged to participate. This creates accountability to the many people who have shared stories and knowledge with us and spurs us to continue working and finding ways to share what we’ve learned. We’ve completed several essays (published on this site), and spoken to hundreds of people at conferences, in college classes, and in the communities we've visited. We’ve completed a full-length documentary film, Under the Stack, and several short films, and we're working on a book. We invite you to make use of the resources that we've shared here, and to keep in touch with us about our work and yours.
Thanks for visiting!
Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson