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ASARCO's History

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

ASARCO El Paso smelter, c 1910

ASARCO is one of the oldest US-based multinational corporations. During its more than 120-year history, the company owned mines in Mission, Ray and Silver Bell, Arizona; Butte, Troy, Black Pine and Mike Horse, Montana; Knoxville, Tennessee; Glover, Missouri; Garfield, Utah; Tar Creek, Oklahoma; Leadville, Colorado; Ground Hog, New Mexico; and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, among others. It owned smelting and refining operations in Hayden, Arizona; El Paso and Amarillo, Texas; East Helena, Montana; Garfield and Murray, Utah; Selby, California; Denver, Colorado; Perth Amboy, New Jersey; Ruston/Tacoma, Washington; Baltimore, Maryland; Bunker Hill, Idaho; and Omaha, Nebraska.

ASARCO also had international holdings and investments in Mexico, Peru, Australia, Chile, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Newfoundland, Canada, West Africa, the Congo and Saudi Arabia.

Grupo Mexico began as an ASARCO subsidiary: Industria Minera Mexico, S.A. Through a complex reorganization process, ASARCO was sold to Grupo Mexico in 1999. Grupo Mexico then purchased ASARCO’s lucrative Peruvian subsidiary, Southern Peru Copper, in 2002. Grupo Mexico briefly lost control of ASARCO when ASARCO declared bankruptcy in 2005, but regained control when the bankruptcy was concluded in 2009. Grupo Mexico now controls some of the largest and wealthiest mines in the world, and is ranked as the third largest copper producer globally.

This timeline is a work in progress. We’ve focused on the communities with which we’ve had the most contact and that we’ve learned the most about. We welcome new information about communities that have lived and worked with ASARCO, Grupo Mexico or any of their corporate offshoots.

Early History

1887   Lead smelter constructed on the Texas/New Mexico/Mexico border, just above the Rio Grande River

1889    The Guggenheim family founds the Philadelphia Smelting and Refining Company in Pueblo, Colorado. The plant smelts ore that is high in zinc and often rejected by other companies because of its contaminated slag.

1890   Mexican ruler Porforio Diaz grants the Guggenheims the right to create the “Great National Mexican Smelting Company,” which establishes a lead smelter in Monterrey and a lead/copper smelter in Aguascalientes, Mexico. The Mexican government stations armed troops on the Monterrey site to prevent unrest. Over time the Guggenheims purchase more mines and construct or purchase railways to open northern Mexico to development.

1898   Henry Rogers, instrumental in forming the Standard Oil Company trust organizes the Amalgamated Copper Company to acquire “all the principal smelting works in the U.S. with the exception of the Guggenheims.” Later, needing capital, Rogers approaches the Guggenheims, who demand control of the developing trust.

1899   Rodgers and his partners create the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), organized under the laws of New Jersey (laws known to be particularly favorable to industrial monopolies), with ownership of refineries in Nebraska, Illinois, Colorado, and Kansas; mines in Colorado and Mexico; and smelters in Colorado, El Paso, Mexico, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

1901   ASARCO averts a catastrophic war with the Guggenheims, who take control of the company, acquiring 50% of ASARCO’s stock.

Era of Expansion

1902   ASARCO expands, building lead smelters at Murray, Utah and Chihuahua, Mexico. The company acquires mines and future mineral rights in Idaho, invests in zinc mining and production and purchases a smelter in Everett, Washington.

1905  ASARCO purchases the Tacoma smelter. The town surrounding the plant is incorporated as Ruston, Washington.

1905-1910  ASARCO continues to expand. Besides acquiring mines with deposits of zinc, lead, and silver, the company also invests in non-ferrous metals, primarily copper. Asarco purchases mines and constructs a copper smelter in Arizona, builds a zinc plant in Texas, purchases the Selby, California lead smelter and refinery and a Baltimore copper refinery, and builds copper smelters in Garfield, Utah, and Hayden, Arizona.

1906   Mexican miners strike for equality against the Cananea Consolidated Copper company, owned by William Greene. The strike is put down by Arizona vigilantes, supported by Mexican President Porforio Diaz. This event is known throughout Mexico as the uprising that sparked the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

1907  ASARCO becomes a publicly held company.

1909   Hayden, Arizona is founded as a company town to provide housing for workers supporting mining and smelting operations. ASARCO and Kennecott build side-by-side copper smelters in Hayden.

1910  El Paso smelter expanded to produce copper.

1910  Solano County, California sues ASARCO on behalf of local farmers, asserting that sulfur dioxide emissions are destroying their crops. The lower court grants an injunction against ASARCO and the California Supreme Court sustains it. The Court appoints the Selby Smelter Commission, which concludes that the plant can operate without hurting crops if it limits SO2 emissions to 30 tons/day.

ASARCO establishes an agricultural research laboratory which conducts extensive experiments, fumigating agricultural plots with SO2. The company concludes that high smokestacks will do a better job dispersing emissions over a larger area—this becomes Asarco’s solution to concerns about emissions for the next 70 years. The company constructs tall stacks at Murray, Selby, and Tacoma (and later, in El Paso, East Helena and Hayden).

1910-1940   ASARCO purchases mines in five new areas of Mexico, invests in copper mines in Chile, and tests for metal in Colombia, Venezuela, the West Indies, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Nicaragua and Brazil, eventually forming a Peruvian mining company as a wholly owned subsidiary, and mining intensively in Bolivia. ASARCO also invests in mines in Canada, Australia, West Africa and Saudi Arabia.

1950’s  An El Paso pharmacist, Joe Piñon, attempts to set up a Poison Control Center in El Paso to address ASARCO's contamination, but the plan is quietly squelched by the El Paso business community.

1954  ASARCO develops its first open-pit copper mine at Silver Bell, Arizona.

1955  ASARCO purchases the Kennecott smelter in Hayden.

1955  Hayden is incorporated and named the year’s All-American City.

1960  Southern Peru Copper Corporation, in which ASARCO has a major stakeholder interest, opens the lucrative Toquepala mine and Ilo smelter in Peru.

Corporate Challenges/Community Resistance

1965  ASARCO constructs an 800-foot smokestack in El Paso. The company says the stack will “diffuse objectionable emissions.”

1967  Under pressure from the Mexican government, ASARCO’s Mexican mines and plants are reorganized as Asarco Mexicana. Because companies in Mexico must be majority owned by Mexican citizens, 51% of interest in the new company is sold to Mexican investors.

1970  Passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act.

1972  Rank and file workers at the Ruston, Washington plant publish the first issue of The Smelterworker. The newspaper highlights research by Dr. Samuel Milham of the Washington State Health Department on children’s exposure to industrially produced arsenic in Ruston.

1972  Dangerously high blood lead levels are discovered in children living in Smeltertown, below the El Paso smelter smokestacks. A team of researchers and physicians, led by Dr. Philip Landrigan, document high levels of lead contamination emanating from the smelter. In areas with high levels of lead in soil, air and dust, children are shown to be breathing in and ingesting lead particles. Dr. Landrigan’s team demonstrates that the lead-poisoned children have sustained irreversible damage to brain development, even at sub-clinical levels. ASARCO settles out of court, establishing a trust fund for the lead-impacted children and promising to install new equipment to curb emissions. Smeltertown is destroyed.

1972-73  ASARCO constructs acid plants in Ruston, Hayden and El Paso, to collect sulfuric acid and reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. The company calls the acid plants “tangible evidence of ASARCO’s dedication to improved air quality.”

1974  Asarco Mexicana is reorganized as Grupo Industrial Minera Mexicana. 15% of Asarco’s interest is sold to Mexican investors, reducing equity to 34%.

1975  Ruston plant manager, Armand Labbe, attends hearings of the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Washington, DC and testifies that if the government creates industrial standards for arsenic emissions, the plant will have to close.

1978  Grupo Industrial Minera Mexico is listed on the Mexican Stock Exchange as GIMMEX).

1980  Superfund enacted into law.

1980  The EPA declares the ASARCO smelter site in Ruston/Tacoma and the entire community of Ruston to be part of the Commencement Bay-Near Shore Tidelands Superfund site.

1981  El Paso zinc plant is shut down.

1985  El Paso lead plant is shut down.

1980’s-1990’s The EPA launches the “Tacoma Process” in which the Ruston community is asked to participate in establishing local exposure levels for arsenic. Under pressure from government agencies, including the EPA, ASARCO begins closing aging plants, including the Ruston/Tacoma smelter and its cadmium plant in Globeville, Colorado. ASARCO’s facilities and neighboring communities in Tacoma, Colorado, Omaha and Montana are declared Superfund sites by the EPA. ASARCO is required to invest millions in remediating area soils, including residents' yards. In Ruston demolition of smelter buildings begins.

1986  ASARCO purchases the Ray, Arizona copper mine from Kennecott.

1988-1990  Forced to privatize national resources, the Mexican government auctions off the historic Cananea mine and concentrator and the nearby Nacozari mine, Mexicana de Cobre. GIMMEX acquires the concession to operate the historic Cananea mine and concentrator for $525 million with a commitment to invest an additional $400 million; the company also acquires concessions for the Caridad and Nacozari mines.

1988  ASARCO creates Encycle, a waste treatment facility in Corpus Christi.

1989  ASARCO announces decision to end involvement in coal mining.

1989  In Hayden the United Steelworkers local discovers and publicizes ASARCO’s systematic under-reporting of Hispanic workers’ health results. Willie Craig, President of Local 881 creates an investigative committee and issues a report, Arsenic and Asarco: The Right to Know, the Right to Live.

1999  ASARCO suspends operations in El Paso—the plant is placed on “care and maintenance" status.

1994  GIMMEX becomes GRUPO MEXICO.

1995  ASARCO purchases an additional 10.7% interest in Southern Peru Copper Corporation, increasing its holdings to 63%.

1997  The Mexican government auctions off railroads, which are acquired by Grupo Mexico and other investors.

1997  In Hayden, Arizona, Betty Amparano is asked to sign a lease releasing her landlord from liability for toxic dust. Amparano takes her children for blood tests and discovers her children have blood lead levels over four times the level at which children are known to suffer brain damage. A local environmental group, Don’t Waste Arizona, helps the community to prepare a class-action lawsuit against ASARCO. Community members knock on doors, distribute surveys and collect information about diseases prevalent in the community. The illnesses identified include heart disease, cancers, lung diseases, stillbirths, birth defects, asthma, kidney failures and lead poisoning. By 1999 250 people, about a quarter of Hayden's population, sign on to the class action lawsuit.

1998  The Department of Justice and EPA discover that ASARCO has been illegally transporting hazardous waste originating at Department of Defense chemical weapons storage sites from its waste treatment facility, Encycle, to its El Paso and East Helena smelters for incineration. A legally binding consent decree requires ASARCO to pay millions of dollars in fines, modernize its remaining plants and improve working conditions and safety procedures.

1999  Grupo Mexico acquires ASARCO for $2.2 billion.

1999  Grupo Mexico closes the Workers Clinic in Cananea.

1999  ASARCO suspends operations at the El Paso, Texas smelter.

2002  Grupo Mexico, ASARCO’s former subsidiary, purchases ASARCO’s lucrative Southern Peru Copper Corporation for $2.5 billion. This acquisition makes Grupo Mexico the third largest copper producer in the world. The Justice Department warns that ASARCO may be contemplating bankruptcy and requires ASARCO to set up a $100 million trust fund to meet its existing environmental obligations.

2002  ASARCO applies to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to renew its air permit at the El Paso smelter. State Senator Eliot Shapleigh leads a community march to El Paso City Hall to demand that the smelter remain closed. Get the Lead Out, a coalition of environmental activists ex-ASARCO workers, university students and public officials, is formed to fight the re-opening of the smelter

2005  Through a stock swap, Southern Peru Copper Corporation acquires Minera Mexico, Grupo Mexico’s mining division. SPCC becomes Southern Copper Corporation. Grupo Mexico’s railroad division acquires the railroad company, Ferrosur, expanding its control of Mexican transportation networks.

2005  Grupo Mexico cuts retiree and health benefits for U.S. workers. The United Steelworkers, Asarco’s main union at its Ray Mine and Hayden smelter, vote to strike. Members of Section 65 of Mexico's National Union of Mine and Metalworkers, known as Los Mineros of Cananea, cross the border to join Steelworkers rallies and express their solidarity with the strikers.

2005  ASARCO declares Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing environmental liabilities as a primary cause. The company has 90+ sites in the United States alone where closures/cleanups are an issue, and 22 Superfund sites.

2006  The roof of the Hayden, Arizona smelter collapses.

2006  An explosion at Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos mine kills 65 miners. Napoleon Gomez, national president of Los Mineros calls the explosion, “industrial homicide.” In retaliation, the government files trumped-up charges against Gomez, forcing him to flee Mexico for Canada, where he becomes a guest of the Steelworkers.

2006  The last building on the ASARCO/Tacoma site is demolished. The site is sold to a local developer, MC Construction, to build a high-end mix of residential homes, condominiums and commercial buildings.

2006  Heather McMurray, an El Paso, Texas, environmental activist, breaks the story of ASARCO’s illegal incineration of hazardous waste. The story is published in the New York Times.

2006  A study by Michael Ketterer of Northern Arizona University links lead isotopes from El Paso, Anapra, New Mexico and Ciudad Juarez to ASARCO’s ore from the Santa Eulalia mine in Mexico.

2006 Richard Schmidt, the Corpus Christi federal judge overseeing the bankruptcy process, removes ASARCO from Grupo Mexico's control, replacing it with a board of creditors that includes the United Steelworkers. The Steelworkers sign a new contract with ASARCO that gives them input into company decision-making and protects health and retiree benefits.

2007  Sterlite (Vedanta), a London-based mining company with assets in India and Africa, offers to purchase ASARCO.

2007  The EPA releases its first reports of contamination in Hayden and Winkleman, and asks Arizona's governor to list Hayden as a federal Superfund site.

2007  The Mineros of Cananea launch a strike against Grupo Mexico over health and safety conditions in the mine and the community. Steelworkers from Arizona organize solidarity visits and aid for the striking miners of Cananea.

2008  Grupo Mexico closes Ronquillo Hospital, the last public medical resource in Cananea.

2008  The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality awards ASARCO its air permit to re-open operations in El Paso. Commissioner Soward reflects on the decision, saying, “Until the Texas legislature changes the very specific provision that they have adopted for air permit renewals, we have to comply with it … we have no choice.”

2008  ASARCO agrees to pay $4.8 million to the Hayden class action litigants. Legal fees take 80% of the settlement.

January 2008  EPA sponsors informational meetings in Hayden; residents receive reports of yard testing; 15 homes are listed for emergency clean-up of arsenic, lead, copper and chromium.

April 2008  EPA, ASARCO and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality reach agreement that ASARCO will fund and administer the clean-up in Hayden, including soil removal and replacement in affected yards. There will be no Superfund listing.

2008-2009  Sterlite and Grupo Mexico engage in a bidding war for ASARCO.

February 2009  ASARCO announces plans to close the El Paso plant permanently.

November 2009  ASARCO emerges from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is returned to Grupo Mexico.

June 2010  The Mexican courts dissolve the collective bargaining relationship between los Mineros and Grupo Mexico. This allows the government to send thousands of federal police to break the strike. The mine is returned to Grupo Mexico’s control; the company offers to rehire strikers if they will accept severance benefits and join a company union. The majority of union workers have refused.


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