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.
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.
Falsifying Medial Tests in Hayden, Arizona
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, 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:
(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 the readings it produced could not be trusted to be accurate;
(3) The medical records did not consistently show blood lead and urinary 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, “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 ... It seems this practice could have a direct effect on the higher than normal lung cancer rate in the Hayden/Winkleman area.”
Craig raised questions about ASARCO’s fugitive emissions connected to “the new technology of the flash furnace that began operation in 1983.” (Fugitive emissions are not captured and emitted through the smokestack, but instead escape directly from the furnace and other industrial equipment, and are released into the plant or the surrounding environment.) Craig argued that the new technologies had "greatly increased the amounts and concentrations of carcinogenic substances produced by the Hayden Plant.” He concluded:
“It is my belief that ... ASARCO has willingly misrepresented medical evidence as gathered through the medical surveillance program at the Hayden Plant Clinic …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 organized over 200 people to file a class action lawsuit against Asarco for serious health impacts, including cancers. lung disease, kidney failure and birth defects believed to have resulted from ASARCO’s emissions. The suit languished for years in the courts but was eventually settled during ASARCO’s bankruptcy. The community was awarded $4.8 million, of which an estimated 60% went to attorneys to pay legal fees.
ASARCO's Hazardous Waste
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 Encycle subsidiary in Corpus Christi, Texas. The waste came from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and other DOD facilities where weapons, including napalm, saarin nerve gas, plutonium and white phosphorous had been produced.
In 1998 the EPA discovered that rather than storing the DOD-originated hazardous waste, Encycle/ASARCO had been illegally burning it at its East Helena, Montana and El Paso smelters. 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/ASARCO insisted tthe materials they received from the DOD
had significant amounts of copper and qualified to replace copper ore. But the EPA found that ASARCO had engaged in “sham recycling.” For almost a decade, at least 247 shipments totaling approximately 5,079 tons of hazardous waste “that had virtually no metals value” were illegally "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.”
In 1998 the EPA and ASARCO signed two consent decrees to resolve the issues connected to ASARCO’s operations and ensure compliance with federal regulations. The first consent decree dealt with general operations, safety procedures and training at all ASARCO’s remaining plants. The second addressed sham recycling, the illegal treatment and disposal of hazardous waste. ASARCO was required to submit to regular inspections, produce periodic reports, strengthen its employee safety procedures, and pay over $50 million in fines. The company also made a commitment to the City of El Paso to spend $370,000 a year to pave city roads.
ASARCO did not acknowledge culpability for its illegal activities.. In 2006, 8 years after the consent decrees were signed, Tom Aldrich, ASARCO's Vice President for Environmental Affairs, 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 was not informed. It would be 8 years before the people of the El Paso border region discovered the truth.
Rocky Mountain Arsenal Photographs from National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Encycle photographs from Texas Natural Resource Commission Report, 1997
El Paso citizen researchers conducted the investigation that revealed ASARCO's sham recycling; their contributions to this page, especially the work of Heather McMurray, are gratefully acknowledged.