Through this project, we’ve been trying to understand how people think about public health in their work, home and communities, as it is impacted by extractive/industrial activities. What do people know about public health? What do they expect from or contribute to the public health efforts to educate and protect their community? What resources are available to them as they attempt to learn about the risks they are being exposed to, and the potential impacts that could result?
We’ve also been trying to understand the role of public agencies and policy in protecting—or failing to protect—the health of workers and communities. How is public policy shaped so that the sometimes slowly shifting “background” of air, water and soil quality in and around industrial sites will even be noticed? What is the role of Public Health Departments, at all levels of government, in monitoring hazards from operations like those of ASARCO? What can and should be expected of them? How are they supported economically and politically to be effective—or, as we have seen in our research on ASARCO—how are they often prevented from being effective in responding to and preventing the shocks to and the erosions of environmental health and the public good?
Most of our learning about public health – as institution, process and possibility – has come from spending time in and around our neighboring community of Ruston/Tacoma and learning about the impacts on four counties of ASARCO’s century-long operation. We’ll focus here on what we think are valuable and often unrecognized or under-appreciated efforts by public health staff in our region. This doesn’t mean we think their work is flawless or fully effective, but it is an effort that needs to be examined, contributed to and strengthened. We’ve learned that the actions being taken in our own region by a four-county network of public health departments are unusual in their focus on long-term monitoring and remediation of ASARCO’s contamination, and we think this work deserves critical attention. We’ve also been following efforts on the state legislative front, in particular, a bill focused on smelter-contaminated soils that offers a remedial path in support of children’s health.
What follows is a guide to what we’ve been learning about public health in response to ASARCO’s operations in our region and in a more limited way, in the other regions we’ve visited and learned from. We’re offering a basic, necessarily incomplete guide to Public-Health-and-ASARCO, with materials drawn from the agencies, the legislature and the media, as well as our own research and that of the community residents with whom we collaborate.
One thing that should demand attention from all of us is the inequality that exists between impacted communities: the different impacts of pollution and hazard; different treatment by the authorities; and different opportunities for recovery. It has become clear that different communities facing the same corporation cannot expect equal treatment from the company or the public agencies.
• The soil (dosing lead and arsenic) a child plays in at an Arizona schoolyard may pose a similar risk to that faced by a child in Washington; but how these children are treated has much to do with how the company operates politically in different state jurisdictions and how public health as a social process has developed differently in the two states.
• What the child in Juarez, Mexico breathes in from the airshed may be similar to the risk borne by the child in El Paso, Texas, but being on the south side of the border heightens the child’s vulnerability. (And neither child is as well served as the children in Washington State, where a special publicly funded project examines children’s exposure.)
• The “Hispanic Factor” corporate policy discovered at the Hayden, Arizona smelter reveals a deeply unethical pattern of unequal treatment (see the Hayden, Arizona section in Community Stories for more on ASARCO’s manipulation of lung function tests for Hispanic workers).
• Protections afforded primarily white workers of European descent in Ruston tended to come much later to Hispanic workers in the Southwest. For instance, during the 1970s and early 1980s, when Ruston workers could leave their work clothes to be washed in an on-site laundry, Hispanic workers in El Paso were taking their clothes home to be washed (except for their coveralls), thus raising the probability of contaminating their families with toxic dust from ASARCO’s operations.
• In El Paso and East Helena, Montana, smelter workers and their communities were exposed to illegal hazards when hazardous waste from Defense Department sites was secretly incinerated in ASARCO’s El Paso and East Helena furnaces in the 1990s. Although the EPA identified the violations and fined the company, the impacted communities were not informed, and nothing was done to monitor the health of workers who handled the hazardous waste. In El Paso, the PA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have refused to test for possible contaminants in area soils, air and water caused by the hazardous waste incineration, or look for long-term impacts on ASARCO’s workers.
Learning about the risks in other communities, strategizing about risks that are experienced in common and yet are responded to with de-facto unequal treatment can galvanize people into building bridges across the borders that separate them, demanding more public accountability, and reconstructing how we labor and live.
Next: The Public Health Vantage Point from Ruston and Tacoma, Washington