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Tainted Earth

Smelters, Public Health, and the Environment

by Marianne Sullivan

Publication Year: 2014

Smelting is an industrial process involving the extraction of metal from ore. During this process, impurities in ore—including arsenic, lead, and cadmium—may be released from smoke stacks, contaminating air, water, and soil with toxic-heavy metals.The problem of public health harm from smelter emissions received little official attention for much for the twentieth century. Though people living near smelters periodically complained that their health was impaired by both sulfur dioxide and heavy metals, for much of the century there was strong deference to industry claims that smelter operations were a nuisance and not a serious threat to health. It was only when the majority of children living near the El Paso, Texas, smelter were discovered to be lead-exposed in the early 1970s that systematic, independent investigation of exposure to heavy metals in smelting communities began. Following El Paso, an even more serious led poisoning epidemic was discovered around the Bunker Hill smelter in northern Idaho. In Tacoma, Washington, a copper smelter exposed children to arsenic—a carcinogenic threat.Thoroughly grounded in extensive archival research, Tainted Earth traces the rise of public health concerns about nonferrous smelting in the western United States, focusing on three major facilities: Tacoma, Washington; El Paso, Texas; and Bunker Hill, Idaho. Marianne Sullivan documents the response from community residents, public health scientists, the industry, and the government to pollution from smelters as well as the long road to protecting public health and the environment. Placing the environmental and public health aspects of smelting in historical context, the book connects local incidents to national stories on the regulation of airborne toxic metals.The nonferrous smelting industry has left a toxic legacy in the United States and around the world. Unless these toxic metals are cleaned up, they will persist in the environment and may sicken people—children in particular—for generations to come. The twentieth-century struggle to control smelter pollution shares many similarities with public health battles with such industries as tobacco and asbestos where industry supported science created doubt about harm, and reluctant government regulators did not take decisive action to protect the public’s health.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

List of Figures

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pp. ix-x

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Acknowledgements

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pp. xi-xiv

There are many people who helped me on the path to completing this book. Foremost among them is my family. My husband, James, took our boys on numerous day trips and weekend- long outings to provide me with the quiet, child- free space necessary for writing. The fact that this project is now complete...

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Introduction

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pp. 1-10

On a rare sunny January day in Ruston, Washington, hundreds of people lined the town’s streets and hillsides to catch a glimpse of destruction. Two miles away, across Puget Sound, on the south end of Vashon Island, crowds also stood waiting, binoculars pressed to their eyes, for the same reason. In between...

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1. The Tacoma Smelter

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pp. 11-30

Few people who live outside of Washington State have ever heard of Ruston, Washington. The town is tiny, about one square mile, and is surrounded by Tacoma. Ruston is dominated by the ninety- plus- acre former smelter site, which occupies a prime Puget Sound waterfront location. The beauty of the area— with the snow- capped Olympic Mountains to the west, Puget Sound visible in three...

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2. City of Destiny, City of Smoke

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pp. 31-54

ASARCO’s copper smelter was not the only industrial plant that was fouling Tacoma’s air. Tacoma, nicknamed the City of Destiny, decisively cast its lot with industry early in the twentieth century, inviting the use of its waters, land, and air for all types of industrial production with descriptions of the city’s industrial potential brimming with a sense of economic triumphalism. Always in competition...

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3. Uncovering a Crisis in El Paso

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pp. 55-72

In the southwest border town of El Paso, Texas, ASARCO operated another massive smelter for much of the twentieth century. In contrast to Tacoma’s location on the foggy and rainy shores of Puget Sound, the El Paso smelter rose out of the parched Chihuahuan Desert, producing lead and copper from raw ore brought by rail from Mexican mines. In El Paso, the smelter’s fires were stoked largely by...

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4. Bunker Hill

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pp. 73-110

In the spring of 1972, within a few weeks of the El Paso lead poisoning crisis becoming public, ASARCO chairman Charles F. Barber sent a letter to Frank Woodruff, the president of Bunker Hill Mining Company near Kellogg, Idaho. Barber was writing to alert Woodruff to the lead poisoning problem found in El Paso. He sent along an internal ASARCO report on the matter, which summarized...

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5. Tacoma: A Disaster Is Discovered

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pp. 111-128

Only two months after El Paso’s lead poisoning crisis hit the front pages of newspapers across the United States, William Rodgers, a young professor of environmental law at the University of Washington, called for an investigation of the Tacoma smelter’s impact on the public health of children living nearby. In a letter to the mayor of Tacoma and the chairman of the newly formed Puget...

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6. A Carcinogenic Threat

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pp. 129-154

If you drive north on Pearl Street in Tacoma and cross Forty- ninth Street heading toward Puget Sound, Pearl Street marks the division between the town of Ruston, on your right, and the city of Tacoma, on your left. Weathered wooden houses line Pearl Street and are interspersed with some local favorite businesses— the...

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7. Sacrificed

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pp. 155-170

When summer finally comes and the blanket of clouds that seems to cover the Puget Sound region all winter and spring lifts, if you stand on a hill in Ruston and look out to the north and west, it is easy to forget that you are standing on a site where an environmental disaster slowly unfolded over a the space of a century. The blue Puget Sound sparkles in the sun, bright white sailboats dot Commencement...

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Conclusion

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pp. 171-174

Forty years after the discoveries at El Paso and Bunker Hill, half a world away, parents are still coping with the same anguish, their children poisoned, perhaps impaired for life because of a lack of industry and government commitment to protecting the health of people and the environment. If the U.S. experience of...

Notes

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pp. 175-226

Index

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pp. 227-238

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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pp. 239-242


E-ISBN-13: 9780813562803
E-ISBN-10: 0813562805
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813562797
Print-ISBN-10: 0813562791

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 5 photographs, 4 maps
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Critical Issues in Health and Medicine
Series Editor Byline: Edited by Janet Golden and Rima D. Apple