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Updated: Feb 4, 2020

The story of ASARCO and its long path as a corporate entity in the U.S. and other countries is marked by a significant moment – “the Tacoma Process.”  In 1983 the Ruston/Tacoma and Pierce County area was enduring much turmoil about the impacts of ASARCO’s stack and fugitive emissions (fugitive emissions are the ground-level, less monitored emissions that can have substantial health impacts on workers, residents, and the local environment).

Asarco-Ruston, WA: Aerial photo with stack

Workers knew they were dealing with the impacts of those emissions – whether through accidents or on-site exposure to arsenic and other contaminants. But they also were caught in the classic “no exit” – jobs versus health. As is typical for anyone who cares about putting food on the table, the workers at ASARCO were willing to endure discomfort and risks associated with their jobs. But in the 1970’s the union threw its support behind a newspaper written by several of its members. The Smelterworker, written by Rodger Jones and two co-workers, was monitoring safety and health in the plant. Key players in the regional environmental and public health movements were increasingly voicing their concerns about ASARCO's emissions—especially the Sierra Club, the Lung Association and an upstart group called Tacomans for a Healthy Environment, headed up by Brian Baird. Baird, a PhD psychology student, would later be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, 3rd District.

In 1983, under the Reagan Administration, William Ruckelshaus, the newly re-installed head of the EPA, was faced with the challenge of developing a national standard for arsenic emissions. On July 12, under pressure from a U.S. District Court order, Ruckelshaus announced a proposed standard that would strengthen the public health protections the EPA was charged with upholding. The proposed standard would reduce the then-current risk of four additional cancer cases in a 12-mile radius of the smelter down to one additional case per year in the region. Rather than press on to a decision, Ruckelshaus offered what he described as an opportunity for participatory democracy. The residents and workers in the Ruston/Tacoma area were invited to participate in a process that required them to weigh environmental health against economic health and the availability of jobs.

This was a first for the EPA.  In existence for over a decade and charged with making decisions that were public health protective, the EPA was venturing out to enlist and invite the public into the challenges of standard-setting and difficult choices. EPA Region 10 in Seattle dedicated much time and energy to stimulating and corralling public interest in this volatile issue, one that had already torn the community and the region as they grappled with an impossible “choice” (or non-choice, as many would assert). The Region 10 staff, in collaboration with an array of public officials, agency staffers, non-governmental organizations and union advocates, organized a series of workshops providing technical information, opportunities for intense discussion and searching Q&A exchanges.

The Tacoma Process got a lot of local attention, but it also stirred the national press to comment on the challenges foisted on the community. Instead of being lauded as an exercise in democracy, many citizens and national commentators saw the process as a cruel exercise that offered few meaningful choices. Some people attended the EPA-sponsored meetings with the button “Jobs,” others with “Health”, others with “Both.” National headlines identified the dilemma that had befallen the community:

“Smelter workers have choice: Keep their jobs or their health?” (Chicago Tribune)

“What cost a life? EPA Asks Tacoma,” Los Angeles Times

“Tacoma Gets Choice: Cancer Risk or Lost Jobs” New York Times

But Ruckelshaus pressed on. He rejected the N.Y.Times’ depiction of his offer as “inexcusable”, the dictate of a modern day Caesar “who would ask the amphitheater crowd to signal with thumbs up or down whether a defeated gladiator should live or die.” He urged people to grasp the complexities of his position: being in Washington, D.C., he had much to learn from people in the region and wanted to take all comments into account. Ruckelshaus argued that he wasn’t shifting the decision to the people of Ruston and Tacoma. That responsibility would be his alone.

The stormy, newsworthy meetings went on. The EPA staff, beyond all others, seemed to have learned a lot about the volatility of the turf they were in. Press accounts reported that participants wanted to hear more than just technicalities (maps, wind charts, or risk estimates). They wanted to offer their own ethical judgments and explain their sense of the risks that linked family, workplace and community. Some press and agency accounts made sharp distinctions between comments they saw as “rational” and others they deemed “cultural.”   But questions about whether dirt would need to be removed “from my garden” proved to be not “just personal” at all; in fact, a prominent feature of public policy that emerged from the Tacoma Process was soil removal as part of remediation. The rational vs. cultural comparison was misleading. The people of Ruston and Tacoma were asking important, heartfelt, and analytically strong questions. The perspective, research and exposure estimates presented by the key regional body, the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Authority, were more in keeping with the broad display of public concern evidenced by the approximately 800 people who attended the workshops than was the narrower approach of the EPA.

The most common depiction of the Tacoma Process—that it all boiled down to a jobs-versus-health standoff—is misleading. In some ways, amidst the volatility and press drama, many people held to the “both” position. Through the meetings, many neighbors and regional environmentalists became much more tuned in to the job concerns of workers and listened with gravity as workers spoke of the demoralization they experienced and of their fears that ASARCO would close and leave them jobless. Mike Wright, an industrial hygienist with the United Steelworkers, took a middle ground and opened the door to worker-neighbor alliances. “No one has to convince our union that arsenic at high levels is risky. We know what arsenic has done to many of our union brothers and sisters in the Tacoma smelter and other copper smelters. It was the death of our members which provided the conclusive evidence that arsenic causes lung cancer.” He pushed for the industry to adopt the best available technology, not just the technology ASARCO said it could afford.

Despite their concerns about the potential health impacts from ASARCO’s emissions, many Ruston residents took positions that supported the company, citing their concern that the smelter would close and jobs would be lost. Sherri Forch was one of the Ruston residents who testified, as she puts it, “for the smelter”. She explained, “I recognized the need for the jobs and the uniqueness of what our town is and how devastating it would be should we lose that…”

The rounds of meetings and discussions were followed by more formal hearings a few months later in November 1983. About 150 people, representing a range of views and organizations, offered their perspectives. These ranged from concerns for jobs, health, environment and the next generation to corporate accountability. One of the most vexing features of the Tacoma Process for many observers and participants was the way the jobs-versus-health script was continually repeated or exaggerated, enabling ASARCO to keep a low profile while the more visible combatants went at each other.

ASARCO did appear in force, however, for the hearings. The company had already questioned EPA’s risk estimates and it offered five expert witnesses who rolled out different estimates with a more comforting “margin of safety.” According to ASARCO’s witnesses, the company: (1) was already in compliance with the Clean Air Act; (2) would/might support EPA’s newly proposed standards; (3) opposed more stringent standards that addressed ambient exposure; (4) could not reduce emissions further; and (5) because of economic realities (a depression in the copper industry) would not take on additional expenditures beyond the predictable BAT (Best Available Technology) formula. In the end, it wasn’t clear what ASARCO would do in response to EPA and community efforts to constrain emissions, even though its Ruston/Tacoma plant had the highest arsenic emissions in the country. And so the process convened to formulate public health protections by creating an arsenic standard dragged on.

Analysis, memory and conversation about the Tacoma Process runs the gamut, from praise for its open, messy, democratic and inclusive elements, to scorn for the false choice it foisted on the public. Yet even while workers, residents, environmentalists and public agencies struggled to voice their concerns, listen to one another, and imagine solutions to a dilemma that seemed all but unresolvable, ASARCO was moving towards a decision to close the plant.


Baird, Brian. “Tolerance for Environmental Health Risks: The Influence of Knowledge, Benefits, Voluntariness and Environmental Attitudes,” Risk Analysis 6:4 (1986), 425-35.

Krimsky, Sheldon & Alonzo Plough, Environmental Hazards: Communicating Risk as a Social Process, Dover, MA: Auburn House, 1988.

Scott, Esther, “The Risks of Asarco,” in Gutman & Thompson’s Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments, Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1997.

Sirianni, Carmen, “The Tacoma Smelter and EPA: EPA Brings Community Deliberation to  Jobs versus Environment Dispute in Tacoma.”

Aerial photograph of Asarco smelter used by permission of the Tacoma Library


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