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Updated: Feb 4, 2020

Asarco-Ruston, WA. Workers in Yard

By the 1970’s there were growing concerns about health and safety issues at ASARCO’s Ruston plant. The work was known to be hard and dangerous, but high wages, an active union and cameraderie on the floor sustained the workers, especially when jobs were particularly dirty or difficult.

Rodger Jones was hired at ASARCO in 1965 when he was 19 years old. At first he worked as a skimmer helper. The skimmer opened the furnace to skim off impurities from the molten ore. The impurities, or slag, would be poured into railroad cars, driven out to the bay, and dumped in the water.  As it cooled, the slag formed a solid metallic substance similar to congealed lava. Over time the slag from ASARCO’s furnaces built up the tideflats and extended the land areas around the bay.

Skimming was dangerous work. If the skimmer couldn't plug the hole in the furnace, the molten copper would overflow and spill out onto the shop floor, causing a runaway. Then one of the workers would have to cross the pool of molten metal to seal the furnace and stop the runaway. Rodger was badly injured trying to stop a runaway, and had to leave the plant. He returned in 1967.

"I started going to union meetings … You’d listen to people in the lunchroom and if you weren’t a union member, you weren’t welcome. I decided I wanted to be part of it, I wanted to be welcome, so I joined the union. Didn’t have a union background, didn’t know a lot about unions, but I started getting interested, and started looking at some of the safety concerns and the health concerns."

Like his fellow workers Rodger was familiar with the health and safety risks incurred daily in the plant. He saw that new workers were often sent to the roaster ovens where the first contaminants were removed or to the arsenic plant itself. The Ruston smelter received the bulk of its ores from the Philippines; the ores were heavily contaminated with arsenic, and the smelter extracted the arsenic and re-sold it commercially.

"And for some people, their skin couldn’t take it [the arsenic]. They would get bad dermatitis and … little boils—there was just a real bad reaction."

Rodger described some near misses while working on the feed floor above the furnace. The feed floor was an elevated platform made up of four-foot square gratings–below it, larry cars transported ore in giant ladles to be dropped into the furnace and smelted. When the ore was dropped in the furnace, it created blowback, a white sulfur cloud.

Within the plant and the community, ASARCO’s sulfur dioxide emissions were a recognized hazard. But the potential for damage from arsenic was less well-known or understood. The Tacoma smelter was one of the largest producers of arsenic in the world. In studies conducted in the early 1970’s by researchers from the University of Washington, ambient arsenic concentrations in Ruston/Tacoma were found to be eight times the national average.[i] Then, in 1972, Dr. Sam Milham, Director of the Washington State Health Department, found elevated arsenic levels in the urine of Ruston children living near the smelter smokestack. These research findings initiated a local, and ultimately, a national effort to create a standard for industrial exposure to arsenic.[ii]

Rodger and two of his co-workers decided to start a newsletter, The Smelterworker. The first issue, printed in 1972, featured Dr. Milham’s research. Concerned about health impacts in the community and their implications for workers in the plant, Rodger began to investigate. He went to Olympia to interview Dr. Milham.

Rodger: "I wanted to interview him because--if they have concerns about the kids in Ruston and their exposure to arsenic, what about people working in the plant? There’s got to be some concern there! That interview, and a lot of subsequent research, opened my eyes quite a bit. And the first thing I found out was that our doctor, Doctor Pinto, was the foremost authority on arsenic exposure in the United States."

Q: "He was the staff doctor at ASARCO?"

Rodger: "Yes, he was. And all the literature kept pointing to him as the foremost authority."

Q: "Had he ever talked to you about arsenic?"

Rodger: "He never talked to anybody about anything."

The Smelterworker tackled some of the major health and safety issues that ASARCO workers faced on the job. Milham’s study had opened the door for workers, community residents and researchers to look into the health impacts from exposure to the contaminants produced by smelting, especially arsenic. Dr. Sherman Pinto, ASARCO's Medical Director, had published studies in reputable, peer-reviewed journals, that were based on ASARCO's confidential personnel records. They consistently asserted that arsenic caused only minimal and temporary damage to the bodies of exposed ASARCO workers. In 1963, the year that Sherri Forch and her husband settled in Ruston, Dr. Pinto and B.M. Bennett, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, published a study in the Archives of Environmental Health Journal, entitled “Effect of Arsenic Trioxide Exposure on Mortality.” This was one of at least 10 articles published over 15 years by Pinto which dealt with the effects of arsenic exposure on workers at the Ruston/Tacoma smelter. The 1963 study examined causes of death (as reported by the attending physicians to the life insurance company retained and funded by ASARCO) among 229 smelter employees. The study concluded, “there was no evidence that chronic arsenic trioxide exposure of the amount described in this study is a cause of systemic cancer in humans.

Years later Pinto was forced to acknowledge that while the cause of death given by the attending physicians was often listed as "pneumonia," the physicians also noted that pneumonia was a complication resulting from lung cancer. In 1977 Pinto and four co-writers finally published a revised study of 527 ASARCO retirees, which tied lung cancer to arsenic exposure. Pinto et. al. wrote:

"overall mortality of this cohort…was “12.2% higher than for males of the same area, at the same ages, and in the same time period. The excess mortality was due chiefly to respiratory cancer, which was three times the expected, and was not due to cigarette smoking."

But in 1972, when Rodger first began to publish The Smelterworker, clear data did not exist about mortality rates from arsenic exposure. Although at first the union leadership was reluctant to endorse the newsletter it did eventually throw its support behind the fledging paper. The Smelterworker went on to win three national awards and became a source of pride to the local and the international. Rodger was elected to the local’s safety committee where he continued to monitor safety conditions in the plant.

Still, many workers continued to fear that pressure to reduce emissions and strengthen safety measures would force the company to close. Rodger explained:

"The threat of closing down was always hanging over our heads ... the union didn’t want to be the one to put the last nail in the coffin ... That fear was real. In the 9-month strike, in 1967, I watched good friends of mine in their ‘60’s that lost their homes, lost their credit, lost their families because of divorce. They were willing to fight for their jobs, but they sacrificed. If you worked at a plant for 30 years and it’s all you know--you’re not ready to quit and become a baker. You just don’t have the skill-set."

For many years, ASARCO exploited employees’ fears to divide the workers and silence safety concerns.


[i] See Sullivan, Marianne, “The Struggle to Regulate the Tacoma Smelter: 1900-1985,” in the Community Stories section of this website

[ii] See Sullivan, Marianne, “Contested Science and Exposed Workers: ASARCO and the Occupational Standard for Inorganic Arsenic,” Public Health Reports 2007 July-August; 122(4): 541-547. Also in the Public Health section of this website.

Interview with Rodger Jones. Tacoma, Washington, June 2006.

Pinto, S, Bennett, B.M., “Effect of Arsenic Trioxide Exposure on Mortality.” Archives of Environmental Health Journal, Vol. 7, Nov. 1963, 583-591.

Pinto, S., Enterline, P., Henderson, V., Varner, M, “Mortality Experience in Relation to a Measured Arsenic Trioxide Exposure.” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 19, 1977, 127-130.

Photograph used by permission of the Tacoma Public Library

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