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The Public Health Vantage Point from Ruston and Tacoma, Washington

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

ASARCO was a protagonist in the struggle for public and environmental health in Washington State dating back to the early part of the twentieth century. Not only did the company have smelters in Tacoma and Everett, but it exerted a powerful hold on early ideas about risk and responsibility. In the 1920s, a group of Washington state farmers legally challenged the Teck Cominco smelter in Trail, British Columbia. ASARCO was shaping its hemispheric cross-borders position and did not want the grievants to be successful in challenging polluted industries across a national border. The company teamed up with Teck Cominco and successfully convinced Washington D.C. leaders to minimize their sympathies and remedies for Washington State farmers. This momentous piece of legal strategizing introduced an early litmus test for environmental claims – “visible injury,” meaning that unless visible damage (in this case to vegetation) could be demonstrated, claims were likely to be judged groundless.

U.S. farmers downwind from Trail received some economic compensation for crop loss, and the Trail smelter came under a mild regulatory regime, but no thorough research on invisible damage was continued, and no fundamental principles were laid down for elimination of trans-boundary pollution … It would take a whole new effort – coming in large part from the environmental movement in the 1960s – to outflank the Trail precedent and bring the smelter industries under a more stringent regulatory regime based on new scientific findings into the effects of smelter pollution on human health as well as plants, and on the newly discovered phenomenon of acid rain. (Smelter Smoke in North America, Wirth, p. xv.)

During this early period of the 20th century ASARCO was a major powerhouse in the productive economy of the Pacific Northwest. Its smelter stack towered over Commencement Bay, where it represented economic health and promise to many an immigrant and worker. While there is no doubt that the smelter contributed to the economic vitality of the Ruston/Tacoma region, and represented job security for many working families, there were also emerging concerns about smelter smoke and its impacts. Periodically, newspaper articles recounted residents’ concerns about damage to plants or livestock. One of the earliest public notices of concern was a lawsuit filed against the smelter in 1917 by a concerned Tacoman for damaging nearby crops; although such daring legal challenges earned the contempt of the company and some powerful local officials, they were a sign of more sustained battles to come. (“Smelter Smoke,” The Forum, 1917)

Over decades of growing concern, the public health process took form in Washington State. (See the sections on Ruston/Tacoma for a detailed profile of these developments; especially Marianne Sullivan’s analysis and ”The Tacoma Process.”) The Tacoma Pierce County Health Department was at the center of these efforts, as it helped shape the science and public process around smelter smoke, soil contamination, impacts on vegetation and gardens, and impacts on people’s lung, skin and overall health.

Health-and-Environment Field Trips

A key feature of our learning has been the opportunity to see a community by meeting with area leaders, community advocates and public health staff from county and state agencies, followed by a walk, in and around the former smelter site. There is a growing practice, drawn from popular education and community-based research, of doing walkarounds and risk mapping. Here in our region we’ve organized several journeys in and around Ruston/Tacoma so that people can begin to get a sense of the history, the geography of the impacted area, the remains of the industrial landscape, and the structural changes implemented through remediation and development.

It is vital for visitors and residents to not only become familiar with government documents, maps and websites, but to hear the stories about community history and struggle, to develop a sense of different vantage points, as voiced by local elders, community leaders, activated and concerned residents and public health practitioners. Much of our own learning has taken place through these visits and walkarounds.

We consulted with staff from the Tacoma Pierce County Heath Department, who provided background on their efforts and access to their information systems. They have given us their time, joining us for the field trips we’ve organized for students and regional teachers. With the help of the TPCHD we’ve tried to help build regional interest in and knowledge about how public health systems take on these very long-term challenges and efforts to restore environmental health. We understand that this has been helpful to agency staff too, giving them a chance to hear questions and concerns from residents, students and a broader public who are learning for the first time about monitoring and remediation activities in the region. Even a group of scientists of varied backgrounds from around our region noted that they had not been paying much attention to the daily efforts of the health department at this one Superfund site and 4-county impact area. Public health as a practice is often taken for granted or not noticed by the community and even by regional scientists.

ASARCO and Public Health Agencies in Washington State

The Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Authority was one of the first regional bodies in the Ruston/Tacoma area to gather data and estimate public risk from ASARCO’s emissions. During the 1980s and the series of activities now known as “The Tacoma Process,” the EPA drew on the knowledge and energies of regional authorities, particularly PSAPCA and the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD). The Tacoma Process culminated with the 1985 decision to list the massive contamination zone in and around Commencement Bay as a federal Superfund site, with the ASARCO site as a critical subset of this larger industrial impact zone. Since ASARCO closed down in 1985, TPCHD staff have had to negotiate a complex jurisdictional terrain, cultivating partnerships with state agencies and building ties to impacted municipalities in Pierce and neighboring counties in order to educate communities about the problems of this federally monitored Superfund. During more than two decades, as ASARCO’s contractors cleaned arsenic-contaminated yards, replaced yard soils and demolished industrial buildings, TPCHD was a central player in the cultivation of regional knowledge about long-term exposure to arsenic and lead and in developing mitigation and protection measures. They have worked with a range of organizations and community advocates through the Soil Health Advisory Committee, a regional group that launched a long-term approach to what they determined would be a protracted, chronic and uneven pattern of regional exposure, sorting through the possible geographic reach and health impacts of airborne emissions. This group was a path-breaker in bringing a range of parties to the table to negotiate the scientific and practical implications of industrial contamination against the backdrop of a very demanding, and at times, exhausting Superfund process.

To get a sense of the output of this work, we’ll turn to the concrete efforts of the TPCHD in its current Dirt Alert Program, developed in partnership with King and Thurston Counties, with their parallel public health goals of remediation and public protection, and with the WA. State Department of Ecology. Much of this complex cross-jurisdictional work has been enabled by a very critical piece of legislation enacted in the WA. State Legislature in 2005. So first, a profile of this key legislation. As evidence emerged that ASARCO’s emissions had impacted a 1,000 square mile area, Dave Upthegrove, WA. State Representative for District 33, was hearing some of his constituents raise these questions: How do we know that the public is safe from the slow, but persistent pattern of airborne metals? How can we know what we’re exposed to? Can it be impacting our soils? Is it safe to garden? And most importantly, is it safe for children to play in the dirt, at their homes, at school and at daycare centers?

District 33 includes a good part of King County, north of Tacoma. It is not at the epicenter of the Tacoma/ASARCO story, but it does reside in ASARCO’s orbit, having received airborne pollutants for many decades. The Safe Soils Bill developed by Representative Upthegrove in consultation with the Washington Departments of Ecology and Health put in place a long-term commitment from the State of Washington and four counties to develop a work plan to sample soils, identify hazards (particularly to children) and initiate small-scale education and remediation plans across the four-county region. Agency staff, especially in Pierce and King Counties, would take on the task of evaluating the exposure of children at their schools and daycare centers. Those sites identified as most at risk would have contaminated soil removed and replaced by new soil and buffers provided by vegetation. Parents, school officials and day care providers would be brought into a long-term educational project to sustain a vigilant focus on children’s exposure, trouble spots and daily practices to minimize exposure. In Pierce County, billboards in shopping and residential areas broadcast the Health Department’s messages about potential exposure hazards, particularly the long-term hazards of arsenic in soils.

Each of these state and city agencies has an extensive websites to provide area residents with information and resources. The Tacoma Pierce County Health Department website keeps residents informed through its Dirt Alert Program page. King County, north of Pierce County, has an extensive Health Department website that provides a wide range of materials on the impacts of the smelter plume, lead and arsenic, tools for educators and residents, health studies and advisories, and maps. Taken together these intersecting websites indicate the scale of the challenge facing public health advocates in the region.

"The first phase of the Soil Safety Program successfully cleaned up play areas at schools and privately owned childcares to keep children from coming into contact with remnants of Asarco’s toxic legacy … But we still have areas with high levels of contamination. With the ASARCO settlement in hand and the Legislature’s approval to use that money, we’re gearing up to tackle more of the work."(Rebecca Lawson, Washington Department of Ecology Regional Toxics Cleanup Program manager, quoted in “Asarco settlement money,” June 30, 2010)

However, Washington faces severe budget woes, as do other ASARCO-impacted states. The very modest gains that have been made to identify pollution sources and activate community-protective solutions are now under threat; the almost invisible, easy-to-take-for-granted efforts in public health can be sidetracked just while they’re getting started. In an article in the Tacoma News-Tribune, Janet Primomo, a professor of Nursing at the University of Washington Tacoma, reminded us that we have a long way to go:

"Tacoma is still cleaning up the mess that ASARCO left behind. There are day cares and playgrounds with dangerous levels of lead and arsenic which put our kids’ health at risk. Actions as simple as children picking up dropped toys and putting them in their mouths can expose kids to lead and increase their health risks. That’s not the kind of dangers our children should have to face. But the money for toxic site cleanup is under siege. Over the past few years, $250 million have been transferred out of a voter-approved toxic cleanup fund. Further cuts endanger these essential cleanups in our community – putting the health of all at risk."

Commenting on the state’s budget crisis, Primomo urged the legislature to “maintain the critical environmental protections that ensure that we have clean air to breathe and safe water to drink, and to clean up toxic sites that threaten our health.” She concluded, “Keeping our environment clean will protect our children, public health, economic future and quality of life here in Washington.”

Building on these broad public health concerns, a group of dedicated labor activists with Jobs with Justice mounted a campaign on behalf of workers remediating the old smelter site. In 2006 MC Construction, a local developer, purchased the former ASARCO site in Ruston and Tacoma, with the intention of building a high-end “urban village” with private homes, condominiums, hotels, shops and restaurants. MC Construction was legally bound to some safeguards and prohibitions on soil exposure for future residents. The company was required to cap the contaminated soil on the smelter site with clean material, and had to accept a permanent ban on planting trees and shrubs whose roots might rupture the site cap. Jobs with Justice and others in the regional labor movement found that Cohen’s subcontractors had failed to protect construction workers, many of them immigrant workers. The absence of needed training, safeguards, protective gear and air/soil monitoring became a much publicized and dramatized issue, with workers and activists picketing the site under remediation with signs condemning the developer and challenging municipal leaders to monitor labor conditions. This struggle reminded locals, many of them smelter worker families, that the need to protect workers’ health does not end with the closure of a risky site, and that workers’ health struggles need to be joined to the broader range of health concerns, especially when an industrial site is being readied for lucrative post-industrial uses.


“Asarco settlement money funds new soil cleanups.” WA Dept of Ecology press release June 30, 2010.

King County, WA. Health Department

Primomo, Janet. “It won’t save money if we let dirty environment harm our families’ health,” The Tacoma News Tribune, April 13, 2011.

“Protect Yourself from Arsenic and Lead in the Soil,” part of public education video spots from the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department.

“Smelter Smoke,” The Forum (Tacoma, WA), December 8, 1917.


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