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ASARCO Closes; A Community Tries To Cope

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

In 1982 ASARCO announced its decision to close the Ruston smelter. Although rumors had circulated for some time, the announcement caught everyone off-guard. Chuck O’Donahue, business agent for the Steelworkers union local, remembers sitting in his office when he received a call from the local newspaper, the Tacoma News Tribune.

"I’m sitting in my office and the phone rings, and it’s the News Tribune, that says they were looking to get my reaction to the plant closure announcement … And I says, “What plant closure announcement are you taking about?” And he says, “You’re the business agent for ASARCO, aren’t you?” I says, “Yah.” And he says, “Oops, I’m sorry.” And he hangs up the phone…Someone let the cat out of the bag. "

The company had promised the union it would remain in operation for at least two years while a dislocated workers program was established, and employees had time to retrain. Using a combination of company, government and union funding, most workers were able to go through a retraining program, or find a new job. Chuck O’Donahue is proud of the process he helped develop to support the workers’ transitions. He estimates that of the 735 employees working at the plant in 1982, 713 found jobs.

"We involved the whole family. We would hold Sunday afternoon … rallies … bring the family out, talk to them … We know what your concerns are: 'What’s going to happen to my automobile? What’s going to happen to my house?' We established a food bank for people who were really in need of it … Now during this Dislocated Workers program, we had no foreclosures … we had no lost automobiles, or repossessions or anything like that."

Some residents found jobs locally, but others moved away in search of jobs and opportunity. The plant closure seemed to sever the tie that many in Ruston felt to the community and the region. Ruston was thrown into crisis, as its main—and virtually only—source of work and resources disappeared. Sherri Forch said,

"When the smelter closed, we lost a whole generation of young people. There were no jobs to aspire to after graduation. They either had to go into the military or go someplace else for work."

In 1983, at the conclusion of the EPA hearings, the ASARCO site, the entire town of Ruston, and the northern edge of the city of Tacoma abutting Ruston were declared a Superfund site due to “widespread contamination of the water, sediments, and upland areas.” The contamination included arsenic, lead, cadmium and copper in soil, air, groundwater, sediments and surface water. For over 20 years the EPA supervised the demolition of ASARCO’s buildings. ASARCO was also required to test and replace yard soils in Ruston and North Tacoma. Most Ruston residents had their yard soils replaced, including their extensive gardens.  Many were proud of their yards and gardens; they enjoyed gardening and eating the vegetables and fruits they raised. Sherri Forch was one of the Ruston residents whose yard soils were replaced.

"They came in with bulldozers and earth movers and here in the backyard, they went down three feet. You can still see the roots of the apple tree they disturbed. They … would go down six inches and take it out to the trailer and test it. If there was still contaminant, they would go down another six inches and test it and go down another six inches … we got probably, market value, $40,000 worth of landscaping.

They were very responsible about replacing the greenery. Unfortunately they were not so responsible about their fill dirt. It was completely sterile. There was no organic material in it whatsoever. And nothing grew."

Today, Sherri’s garden is lush and green, with dahlias, roses, and seasonal vegetables growing in profusion. But it took years to build up the soil again and create the richly fertile environment her garden needed. Sherri also uses pesticides now for the first time since moving to Ruston almost 40 years ago. She jokes that in the past the arsenic in Ruston’s air must have killed the insects that now prey on her vegetables and flowers. Since the smelter closed, she says, she regularly finds earwhigs on her dahlias.

The Ruston School was closed, and children were sent to nearby Tacoma to attend school. ASARCO’s buildings were gradually demolished. In 1992, the ASARCO smokestack was dynamited. Sherry remembers:

"It was a beautiful day in February; Commencement Bay was just—boats, you probably could have walked across the water on the boats. And even the Vashon Island ferry detoured over into Commencement Bay and waited there so the people on the ferry boat could watch this … And it just rumbled and then it tipped, and this huge cloud of dust…

It was there all my life … I still miss it. It still should be there."

Ruston: Onsite containment facility–school in background

A key turning point in the prolonged remediation process occurred when the EPA agreed to house ASARCO’s most contaminated soils in an onsite containment facility (OCF). Soils from the ASARCO site, and from an old ASARCO plant in Everett were placed inside a giant container which is supposed to be capable of withstanding earthquakes and other natural disasters in perpetuity. The Everett soils now stored in the OCF are estimated to contain as much as 25% arsenic.

The town of Ruston struggled on, surviving on a $100,000 yearly grant from ASARCO which funded basic municipal services until the company declared bankruptcy in 2005.

25 years later, public health and environmental concerns linger on in the region. State testing shows that ASARCO’s contamination extends over 1,000 square miles, into four counties. ASARCO has moved on, shifted its form and sustained its operations in other areas of the U.S. and globally. But it left its mark on the local community. Chuck O’Donahue argues that this is standard practice for ASARCO.



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