In 1972, as medical research teams began to study blood lead levels in El Paso’s children, the City of El Paso, led by Mayor Bert Williams, and State of Texas filed suit against ASARCO. One focus of the case made by the city and state was the level of contamination found in Smeltertown, a Mexican-American community located beneath ASARCO’s stacks.
Smeltertown fell entirely within Zone One of Dr. Landrigan’s study. Many of Smeltertown’s male residents worked at ASARCO, and some families had lived there for generations, ever since crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In her study of Smeltertown, Monica Perales argues that ASARCO, through its Mexican mining subsidiaries and trans-national shipping routes, helped to create a “larger industrial zone” that transformed Mexicans into industrial workers and encouraged Mexico-to-U.S. migration (Perales 5-6). Some workers and their families followed the shipping routes across the border, settled in Smeltertown, and found work at the ASARCO smelter or in nearby industries. The residents of Smeltertown built and owned their homes, but did not own the land on which their homes were located. Sewage and water systems were built by the residents. Originally located outside the city limits, by 1972 Smeltertown had become part of the growing city of El Paso; According to Daniel Solis, a former resident, “Smeltertown essentially was an eyesore for El Paso” an embarrassment to city officials and the company.
Perales describes Smeltertown as close-knit, vibrant community with a strong sense of identity that “resulted from a legacy of habitation …and was rooted in common language, immigration, work experience, socioeconomic conditions, religious traditions and cultural activities. These elements bound them together as an extended family, and contributed to the sense of ‘emotional ownership’ that Esmeltianos felt for Smeltertown” (Perales 5).
The residents of Smeltertown also experienced the discomforts of living with ASARCO’s emissions on a daily basis. Sulfur dioxide, a major by-product of smelting, creates foul odors and can cause breathing problems and irritation of the eyes, throat and lungs. Daniel Solis recalls:
"In July and August … our folks would bring us into the house, because the smoke, the pollution, the sulfur, would settle into our community for about 2 or 3 hours every day in the mid-day when there was no breeze to take it away. When we would breathe that, we could not be outside because we were constantly coughing. So nobody can tell me that there was no ill effect on the majority of the folks that lived in Smeltertown."
Mary Romero writes that Smeltertown families tried early on to get the city to respond to problems of pollution.
Residents had organized in the 1950’s in an unsuccessful attempt to get the city to pave Smeltertown streets and thus control the dust problem. Several parents had sought medical attention for children born with brain damage and other illnesses; not one case, however, had been diagnosed as lead poisoning. Past attempts to label health problems as pollution-related illnesses had been unsuccessful (Romero 35).
The residents of Smeltertown were well aware of the discomforts caused by dust and sulfur dioxide emissions, but they were less aware of the dangers posed by lead exposure. Initially, the families reacted to the disclosures of lead contamination with great concern and cooperated with the research teams and doctors who came to test and treat the children (Romero 35). Some children were taken out of the community to be tested—the 4 year-old sister of Daniel Solis was taken to Chicago, although, as Daniel recounts, “She had never been to the airport, much less on an airplane.” Most of the children were treated at local hospitals, using chelation therapy, a drug regimen designed to remove heavy metals from the blood. The treatment is painful, and can be prolonged.
Daniel recalls that his young siblings were terrified of the painful injections. Because of the pain and fear experienced by the children, some families withdrew their children from treatment. Romero writes that parents felt “unable to justify the painful treatment,” because the lead in the children’s blood did not produce perceptible (clinical) symptoms. Some families concluded that the children’s bodies had adapted to lead and were being made sick by chelation, not by lead exposure. One of her informants said,
"When my children were given the medicine, they got sick. They gave the children shots in the morning and by the afternoon they were sick. [We] believed that removing the lead may have made the children sick." (quoted in Romero 34)
During the trial, Ken Nelson, Director of Environmental Sciences for ASARCO, testified that lead contamination in Smeltertown had been “overlooked” by the company (Shapleigh 15). ASARCO officials said it had “never occurred” to them to include Smeltertown in the company’s air pollution monitoring system (Shapleigh 15). A formidable team of trained physicians and researchers testified about the health impacts on Smeltertown's children from ASARCO's emissions. . When the defense ended its case, ASARCO chose not to present a defense. Instead, in 1972, the parties agreed to a settlement agreement that included fines, commitments to install new emissions control equipment, and a fund for medical care for children with elevated blood lead levels.
Perales argues that in the process leading to the legal settlement the needs and desires of many Esmeltianos were ignored. She writes, “While the company and city argued health and environmental policy, Smeltertown residents were concerned with preserving their community … In attending community meetings and telling their stories to the press, the residents continually stated their refusal to move and their desire to maintain a way of life that had existed for generations.” Ultimately, ASARCO and the City reached an agreement, over the objections of Smeltertown residents, to evict the Esmeltianos and raze Smeltertown. Because the residents of Smeltertown did not own the land on which their homes were built, they were not eligible for relocation benefits (Romero 31). Some residents were eligible for public housing, and the city arranged for them to have priority access to new public housing projects. Others simply moved away.
Mary Romero points out that the demolition of Smeltertown represented the least expensive solution for the city and ASARCO:
“Decontamination of the area and monitoring the health of Smeltertown residents demanded expensive economic commitments, not only from ASARCO, but from the city as well” (Romero 31).
She points to a statement by ASARCO’s physician that if Smeltertown had been allowed to remain, it would have required a greater commitments of funds and services than either the city or company was willing to provide.
If these families elect to move, it will of course simplify my job in relation to their continued exposure. If they elect to remain and are allowed to remain, then I think our interests for their children and their families should provide more than dust control. It should also provide drainage, it should provide garbage collection; it should provide sewage disposal; all of these factors as far as I am concerned are important to their makeup and their health (quoted in Romero 31-32).
The demolition of Smeltertown did not solve the problem of ASARCO’s emissions. Although the problem was first defined as a community health problem; it was later redefined as a problem specific to Smeltertown.
Restricting government action to Smeltertown fulfilled several objectives for various local interest groups. Business and industry were reassured that environmental policies would not threaten future growth. Workers were assured that pollution abatement would be placed second to economic stability, and therefore the chances of plant shutdowns or corporate flight were lessened … city and state officials were able to ignore contamination and possible health threats in other parts of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico (Romero 27-28).
Daniel Solis argues that the eradication of Smeltertown destroyed a significant part of Mexican-American history in El Paso. Like Romero, he points out that the solution chosen by the city and the company redirected attention away from the wider problems of contamination that was affecting children, workers and communities in the region.
The problems resulting from ASARCO’s emissions resurfaced continually over the years of ASARCO's operations in El Paso. Although the plant closed in 1999, the toxic contamination from ASARCO continued to be the focus of community struggles with the company, as community members pressed for information about the extent of contamination on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
(SMELTERTOWN VIDEO HERE)
Shortly after the trial concluded, business interests organized to defeat Mayor Bert Williams who had helped to spearhead the suit against ASARCO.
In 1978, 5 years after a court settlement in which ASARCO agreed to install new emissions control equipment, Dr. Rosenblum of the El Paso City-County Health Department wrote that El Paso continued to have one of the highest levels of lead in air in the United States. He warned that air lead concentrations in the city were increasing.
In 1979, after several postponements, ASARCO finally completed the installation of emissions control equipment. In 1982 the zinc plant was shut down; in 1985, the lead plant closed; in 1986 the cadmium plant was demolished. In 1989 ASARCO approved the expansion of copper production facilities in El Paso.
Next: The Battle for ASARCO's Air Permit
Perales, Monica. Smeltertown: A Biography of a Mexican-American Community, 1880-1973. PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 2004.
Romero, Mary, “The Death of Smeltertown: A Case Study of Lead Poisoning in a Chicano Community,” in The Chicano Struggle, Bilingual Press, 1984
Shapleigh, Eliot. Asarco in El Paso: September 2008. El Paso, Texas
Interview with Dr. Philip Landrigan, September 2009, New York City, New York
Interview with Daniel Solis, from the film, Under the Stack (dir. Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson)
See also, Perales, Monica. Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Many thanks to Alex Becker for his invaluable research assistance.