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Hard Times in Hayden

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

In the first decade of the 21st century the community of Hayden numbered about 800 people, housed within approximately one square mile. Although the smelter was in full production, the community was experiencing hard times. In 2009 the median household income was $26,797, $22,000 less than the state median. The population declined from 892 in 2000 to 808 in 2009. 85% of Hayden’s residents were Hispanic. Only 3.5% of Hayden’s adult population had attended college, and the unemployment rate in 2009 was 14%. (

Hayden’s downtown consisted of two blocks of boarded-up stores. The theater went out of business long ago; the schools were relocated to Winkleman, and the nearest grocery store is in Kearny. Families worried that the bleak physical and economic landscape wouldn't be enough to keep their children in Hayden. In 2008 we recorded a discussion with high school students from Hayden, San Pedro and Winkleman, and asked them about their perceptions of the community. The students were unanimous in their responses: much as they loved their families, they believed that in order to have a future "and not live paycheck to paycheck," they would have no choice but to leave the community.*

Like many other mining/smelting communities, Hayden/Winkelman is caught in the classic “jobs-versus health and safety“ no-win situation. They need both, but most have felt cornered and without options. Even those who don’t work at ASARCO are dependent on the company to support the economy of the struggling community. Workers at the school district or the mini-mart know they cannot survive economically without ASARCO. This makes it difficult for community members to raise concerns about company policies.

Hayden Smelter today from San Pedro

Still, questions about ASARCO's impacts on community health and safety have haunted Hayden for decades. And while these questions are not new, there is widespread agreement that conditions grew significantly worse when Grupo Mexico took over the operation of ASARCO in 2002. In July 2006 at a Steelworkers training in Phoenix, workers told us of dangerous conditions at the Hayden smelter caused by deteriorating facilities and equipment, poor training for new workers, and inadequate safety and lockout procedures. The roof of a building had just collapsed; the workers had warned the company that the collapse was immanent, but the company ignored them. A member of United Steelworkers Local 886 described the “bad structural steel conditions” in the plant.

"The steel is actually rotted to where it might have started out as 3/8 of an inch thick or half an inch thick or 5/8 of an inch thick. Now it’s down to 1/16th of an inch. In some places, it’s like paper. And this is structural steel that supports the main building frame … We’ve reported this to various supervisors, but it seems to fall on deaf ears." (The names of workers in this and the following quotes have been withheld to protect them from retaliation.)

The workers described a near-fatal accident in which two new employees were hit by cranes and seriously injured.

"These guys had barely made a 90-day probation period … they’re going up there green … if you put your hand in the wrong place, step in the wrong place, it could be your life, a hand, you know? These poor guys are lucky they’re alive."

Two other workers were badly burned in an explosion; another was electrocuted; still another was decapitated by a conveyor belt.

"In the morning…when I leave for work I’m not sure whether I’m going to come back at the end of the day because I don’t know what’s in store for me … And we leave everyday hoping to come back the same way we left. You know, intact"


In 1994 Hayden’s smelter was #6 in the nation for TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) releases, “among the top 20 polluters nationwide” (Phoenix New Times, 12/3/98). It has been difficult getting agencies to respond to safety and health concerns. 1990’s state government studies found no conclusive links between exposures and cancer. ASARCO funded an Arizona Department of Health Services study, asserting it would “confirm … there is little if no impact from the plant on the community” (Phoenix New Times, 4/29/99). Yet home-buyers had to sign waivers releasing previous owners from liability for hazardous dust exposures.

Waste Pond Behind ASARCO with Broken Pipe

Despite the studies, Hayden residents have persistent concerns about the risks to community health. They have pointed out the frequency of cancer, lung conditions, heart disease, kidney failure and miscarriages in their community. The level of community concern became intense enough for 253 residents to organize a multi-million dollar lawsuit against ASARCO. The suit languished in court for years, but was eventually bundled into ASARCO's bankruptcy. The bankruptcy court awarded $4.8 million to the claimants, with over 60% going for legal fees. Like other communities who have attempted the lawsuit strategy, many felt betrayed--and devastated by the pittance they were awarded.

With little regional or state support, some residents hoped the EPA would carry out its own independent investigation. By 2004, the EPA was conducting tests in Hayden/Winkelman under its Emergency Response provision, despite community skepticism and unwelcoming responses from company officials and state and local authorities. Even the union hesitated, concerned about potential loss of jobs and about bringing negative attention to an already beleaguered and vulnerable community. Still EPA Region 9 staff labored on with its investigation, spurred by the growing evidence of serious hazard. Over 1000 soil samples were collected. Water and air samples were also taken.

Starting in 2007, EPA staff held public meetings in Hayden and Winkleman to inform the community about its test results, which documented significantly elevated levels of arsenic, lead, copper, cadmium and chromium in air and soil.

"The arsenic in Hayden air is about 60 times above what would be expected in an area unaffected by smelting activities" (EPA Report on Asarco Hayden Plant Site, September 2008, pg. 2 ).

The EPA named ASARCO as the party responsible for the contamination. The agency was prepared to declare Hayden a Superfund site and place it on the National Priorities List (NPL), but it encountered opposition from the company, public officials and union leaders, as well as from csome community residents. ASARCO Vice President Tom Aldridge insisted at a public meeting that there was little cause for community concern:

"These are very low levels we're talking about." (Tom Aldridge, ASARCO Vice President for Environmental Affairs)

ASARCO argued that the NPL listing was unnecessary and claimed the company could manage the cleanup without federal interference. At the same time they questioned whether their smelter was responsible for the toxic levels of contaminants that were found. The Steelworkers expressed their concern that NPL listing would depress real estate values and cripple economic development in Hayden; they also argued that the bankruptcy–which had separated ASARCO from Grupo Mexico and engineered a favorable contract between the company and the union–made ASARCO a more trustworthy community partner. Facing widespread opposition to Superfund listing, the EPA forged a compromise agreement with the state and ASARCO: the company would assume responsibility for cleanup of area soils, but the EPA would monitor the cleanup and continue to inform community residents about potential hazards.

At a July 2009 meeting in Hayden, the EPA staff delivered more detailed reports. About 650 properties in the two adjoining towns had been sampled, with 250 requiring cleanup due to excessive levels of arsenic, copper and lead. One of Hayden’s few parks, adjoining the Hayden public library on the edge of the smelter property, had been cleaned, and supplied with new grass and playground equipment. The work moved along, although at a slow pace, with continuing monitoring and selective cleanup of area properties.

The tiny communities of Hayden and Winkleman continue to be haunted by a past that was marked by unjust, discriminatory practices, a dramatic lack of transparency and a weak display of commitment to public safety and health by Arizona government agencies. The research and organizing efforts that may eventually improve the quality of life in Hayden and Winkleman are due entirely to the efforts of dedicated workers, courageous community members and a few committed EPA staff. Yet Hayden, the last smelter site in the US, a town built to provide the nation with one of its primary industrial resources, should be receiving widespread attention. The workers and residents of Hayden and Winkleman deserve respect and support from labor and environmental advocates, both for their efforts on behalf of workplace and environmental justice and because of their legitimate needs for community and worker health and safety.

Our focus in this project has been on the mining/smelting towns of Hayden and Winkleman. But the impacts of ASARCO’s operation are felt around the state. Two Indian tribes were named as creditors in the bankruptcy: O’odham tribal lands have been damaged by the ASARCO Mission Complex; and near Casa Grande, on the Gila River Indian Reservation, the Sacaton mine is notorious for its blowing dust and particulates. As part of its bankruptcy settlement, ASARCO funds will help enhance a public safety facility in Casa Grande.

Meanwhile there is renewed concern about wind-blown dust near other ASARCO mines and smelters, including the Hayden smelter. In January 2010 Pima County and EPA officials spoke to concerned residents. ASARCO faced some stiff fines, but Tom Aldrich, ASARCO’s Vice President for Environmental Affairs, once again reassured the assembled crowd that “across the board, these [dusts] are very low in metals, about what you’d expect here, comparable to the background levels in soils.” Meanwhile, news reports indicate that state soil scientists have a re-energized interest in dust-born metals and are looking further into mine contaminants across the state. The search for knowledge goes on in the land where copper continues to reign.

Abandoned Movie Theater, Downtown Hayden


Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Superfund: In the Eye of the Storm, March 2009. pgs. 32-33: Arizona site: Hayden-Winkelman: “Fighting the Long Fight for Health in Copper Country”

Don’t Waste Arizona, an environmental organization that has lent technical support to the Hayden community and publicized their story; information, films, photos.

“EPA to discuss sample program tonight, tomorrow,” Copper Basin News, January 9, 2008

“EPA Releases “ASARCO Hayden Plant Investigation Results,” EPA Asarco Hayden Plant Site, September 2008.

“Public Meeting: Residential Yard Cleanup and Future Activities,” EPA Asarco Hayden Plant Site, July 2009.

“Asarco Hayden Plant”: description, history, potentially responsible parties, documents, reports, contacts, community involvement. This site provides detailed profiles of mine/smelter ownership and operations.

Franchine, Philip. “Mine dust not dangerous, residents told,” Green Valley News, January 30, 2010

“New Casa Grande Public Safety Facility Enhanced through Asarco Donation,” August 19, 2010

“What’s in the Smoke? A Breathers’ Guide to Douglas Smelter Pollution,” The Cochise Smelter Study Group, Bisbee AZ 1982

Useful Documents:


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