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ASARCO's Emissions

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

Aerial view of Ruston and ASARCO's smokestack

Edie Tallman moved to Tacoma in the early 1960's. Shortly afterwards, she met her husband, Pete. Pete, the son of an ASARCO smelterworker, worked as a pipefitter at ASARCO for 35 years.

Edie quickly came to realize that ASARCO occupied a central place in the lives of Ruston's townsfolk.

Because of ASARCO's importance to the community, Ruston residents were generally willing to live with odors, noise and acid rain caused by proximity to the smelter. Sherri Forch said,

"When the wind went bad and the dust blew down, if there was smelter dust on your car and it damaged it, the smelter would pay for a paint job or to get it cleaned up. And if you got damage from something else they would write a check. They were a good neighbor in the sense that they could not control what the wind was doing with the effluent, but if you had damage, they reimbursed."

Acid rain could damage the finish of cars, sidings, or clothing hanging on a line. Edie Tallman remembered:

"I have white vinyl siding and at one time that turned yellow. And sometimes you had to redo the laundry because it made spots on it … You knew it was from ASARCO because it was coming out of the smokestack. But you didn’t know what it was. So people would get really upset when they had to do their laundry twice."

During the first half of the 20th century most complaints and concerns about the smelter focused on sulfur dioxide emissions. By the late 1940’s concern about SO2 was so persistent in nearby Tacoma that the Chamber of Commerce pressured ASARCO to build an acid plant to capture the gas and convert it to sulfuric acid. Although techniques for sulfur recovery had been utilized by smelters since 1909, Asarco argued that an acid plant would not be cost-effective because there was a limited market for sulfuric acid. In 1950 the company finally bowed to pressure and built the plant. Approximately 18% of the noxious gases were captured by ASARCO's acid plant, while at other smelters 3-4 times as much SO2 was diverted. This did not satisfy newly arrived residents to Tacoma’s West End, where, in the early 1950’s, neighbors formed an association to investigate the cause of health problems in their neighborhood. People complained about pets dying, yards where nothing grew, and children who developed asthma and experienced acute breathing problems when SO2 emissions were high. The association began to pressure state and county agencies to monitor and regulate ASARCO emissions. Although they focused on sulphur dioxide, the neighborhood group also requested that the state gather information about heavy metal emissions from the plant, particularly arsenic (Sullivan 2008).

In the 1960’s government agencies, including the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency (created in 1967), the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, and the Tacoma City Council, began to focus more attention on ASARCO's emissions. Community members continued to pressure the smelter to improve its SO2 emissions, although dispersion via the stack, first presented as a temporary solution during the 1920’s, was still ASARCO’s preferred solution forty years later. ASARCO continued to insist that sulfur dioxide was not harmful, would not damage crops, plants or livestock, and caused only temporary discomfort to humans. At the same time ASARCO created its own environmental research department and conducted more research on SO2 emissions than any other U.S. company of the period; none of their findings were released to the public (Sullivan 2008).

The Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency (PSPAPCA) made frequent attempts to regulate ASARCO’s SO2 emissions. The agency’s records document numerous attempts to cite ASARCO for violations of ambient SO2 standards, and to persuade or force ASARCO into compliance. ASARCO responded with litigation, requests for variances (exceptions) and public relations campaigns and lobbying to convince the PSAPCA board and elected officials to loosen air quality controls. By 1985 when the Ruston smelter closed, the company had reduced its emissions to 58% of pre-1960’s levels, but it was still out of compliance with state and local SO2 regulations, which required it to reduce emissions by 90%.(Sullivan 2008).

"The sulfur … they used to say, 'Well, you’re in Tacoma; you’ve got the aroma of Tacoma.' Which,  of course, was St. Regis Paper Mill. But it was not St. Regis that was doin’ it; it was all ASARCO."  (Chuck O’Donahue, United Steelworkers business agent, Ruston)

In 1972 lead poisoning was discovered in children living in El Paso, Texas, in Smeltertown, a Mexican-American community located next below the ASARCO smelter smokestack. This was the first time lead poisoning in children had been definitively linked to smelter emissions. (Read about Smeltertown here). In Northwest Washington state air quality agencies and health departments began to test for lead and arsenic in soil as well as in the hair, blood and urine of children living near the ASARCO smelter. Dr. Sam Milham of the Washington State Health Department found that children living within a half mile of the stack had average arsenic concentrations in urine that were 15 times higher than what was then considered safe for humans (Sullivan 2008, 204). The state Health Department asked for comprehensive studies, including bio-monitoring of residents and extensive soil and air sampling. In 1973 the head of environmental health for the Health Department wrote to the EPA:

"Our investigation has shown the problems to have significant impact beyond the people of Ruston … the total environment may be adversely influenced by the smelter" (cited in Sullivan 2008, p. 223).

Tests of grass samples near the smelter where horses were pastured showed potentially fatal lead levels, and samples of garden vegetables found mercury, lead and arsenic (Sullivan 2008, 225). In January 1974 the regional office of the EPA requested funding for comprehensive studies, stating,

"The ASARCO smelter pours tons of material into the atmosphere daily. Among the pollutants emitted are known to be lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, all of which are toxic materials. The smelter has been in operation 85 years during which time the emissions have been virtually uncontrolled. Build-up … in the soil, plants, and possibly in the bodies of people living in the area proximate to the Smelter could pose a serious health hazard to those individuals … A potential public health problem of unknown extent exists in this area" (Sullivan 2008, 227).


Sullivan, Marianne, “Game Without End: politics, pollution, public health and the Tacoma Smelter. Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 2008.

Interview with Chuck O’Donahue. Ruston, Washington, May 2006.

Interview with Sherri Forch. Ruston, Washington, July 2006.

Interview with Edie Tallman. Ruston, Washington, August 2006.


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