(For more information, see: our Community Stories, Arizona section)
We who live in Washington State are fortunate that our state has entered into a different phase of its relationship with mining and smelting. Washingtonhas taken a leading role in dealing with the smelter’s droppings, what the company has left behind. Even in Washington, it can be politically risky to be direct and hard-hitting about ASARCO’s impacts; criticizing the company can put you on the outs with some powerful figures in the region. Still, while the work of remediation and monitoring in Washington has its own challenges, they are minor compared to what agencies and community members in Arizona risk when they attempt to confront ASARCO.
The people who live in Arizona’s mining communities are on the frontlines of a continuing battle, on an ever-changing border of risk and responsibility. This is true, in part, because of the influential role of King Copper in Arizona, but it is also because the Hayden/Winkelman site is the only surviving smelting operation in the U.S.. The Hayden community is absolutely and fully dependent on ASARCO; furthermore, ASARCO’s Arizona mines give it continued clout throughout the region. Given the power and persistence of the industry and the economic dependence of the miners and smelter workers, a political agenda has developed that consistently pushes public health to the margins. This means that the community, the workforce, the union, and the state and county public health agencies bear a special burden, including the distinctive anguish that comes from holding knowledge that is shackled by constraints on action.
The public health posture in Arizona on the hazards of mining and smelting has been on-again, off-again. Community groups and courageous individuals have asked difficult questions and worked quietly and often forcefully, to challenge the company, to gather evidence and to call on public health, labor and environmental authorities for support. Those advocates have intermittently succeeded in drawing much needed attention to their plight before being silenced, sidetracked, penalized or exhausted. And so the community’s story about itself has shifted every few years. Visits to the cemetery, photos, conversations with families and the yellowed clippings in the small Hayden library tell of a community that has lost fathers and sons to gruesome accidents, while relatives wonder whether cancers, kidney diseases, lung ailments, miscarriages and birth defects are the result of chronic exposure to lead, arsenic, chromium, copper, and other contaminants. It is not easy – or advisable – to talk openly on the streets about illnesses and accidents related to the long history of ASARCO’s presence.
At times the Steelworkers locals have been involved, especially when accidents occur in the plants. It’s been the sad duty of local union officials to visit the families of men whose lives were squandered because of shoddy workplace conditions. But it’s proven difficult to sustain a long-term fight with the company over occupational and environmental health when the livelihood of the community depends on a fired-up smelter and an active mine.
Our visits to Hayden have offered glimpses and impressions of the risks threatening the community. We’ve documented a limited paper trail identifying actions taken by state and federal agencies. The presence of public health and environmental officials and practitioners is extremely limited in Hayden. While the staff may have concerns they can’t voice, there is too much available evidence for any public health or environmental health practitioner to claim ignorance of ASARCO’s shoddy record and the health and safety challenges it has created for the community. Nevertheless, the state’s overall policy stance has been tepid, so much so that when the EPA began to test air and soil in Hayden and the next-door town of Winkleman, it was met with resistance by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the Governor’s office, both wanting to avoid the “stigma” of federal attention. Recently, University of Arizona scientists have begun to pose questions about the long-term health effects of the mining waste that pervades the region. Hopefully, this research will lead to more public recognition of the dangers that Arizona communities face.
Hayden and Winkelman are acknowledged as public health high-needs areas because of the quiet persistence of a few staff in EPA, Region 9. Facing a chilly reception from area and state officials who refused to invite them into the community, EPA staff continued trying to gather evidence and initiate a remedy. When their recommendation to list Hayden/Winkleman as a Superfund site was resisted by local and state authorities, the EPA used a provision allowing them to do emergency cleanups in designated houses. When ASARCO agreed to a wider remediation process--without acknowledging responsibility or admitting the dangers deposited in area soils and air--EPA instituted federal monitoring of the clean-up and conducted community-wide meetings to inform the public and invite their participation. According to the EPA Region 9 documents that are available online, between March 2008 and October 2009, 260 residences in Hayden and Winkelman had soil removed--over 50% of households--due to high levels of arsenic, lead and copper. This is not the solution to the region’s long-term exposure, but it has forced public recognition of the dangers from ASARCO’s ongoing practices. While community members have complained that the clean-up is a band-aid that did not address the worst effects of metal pollution drifting into their living spaces, they have welcomed the agency’s intervention.
Next: The Public Health Picture in El Paso del Norte
Note: It is not easy to track government information online about conditions in Hayden. Some material, including some public information sheets, is available on the EPA website. Go to “Gila & Pinal,” and then “Asarco Hayden Plant.”