- Copper Stain: ASARCO’s Legacy in El Paso by Elaine Hampton and Cynthia C. Ontiveros
Discussions of the toxic legacy of mining usually center on issues like acid mine drainage, the polluted pits left behind from strip mining, or the ailments afflicting underground miners, but the social and environmental costs of mining go well beyond the initial excavation. Digging ore out of the ground is only the first step in the process. Extracted ore is milled and finally smelted in gargantuan furnaces where the refined ore is heated to thousands of degrees and reduced to an almost pure product. Gold, silver, and copper, among others, were processed this way, and long after nearly all the mines in the American West closed, the ASARCO smelter at El Paso, Texas, continued processing ores from around the world, closing finally in 1999 when the global price of copper crashed.
The original owner of the smelter complex in El Paso was the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), the preeminent smelting corporation in the United States from the late nineteenth century onward. The smelter, however, dated to 1887, when Robert Safford Towne purchased 1,156 acres for $3,757 on the banks of the Rio Grande just outside El Paso. The smelter’s smokestack spewed smoke and particulates across the city and into neighboring Juarez, Mexico. In 1951 a taller smokestack was built, reaching over 610 feet, and finally in 1967 an imposing 828-foot tower was completed. Over time, as more and more buildings, including the houses of the smelter’s workers, congregated around the complex, the smelter was no longer outside the city. Despite the increasingly taller smokestacks, toxic smoke, containing trace amounts of heavy metals like lead and sulfur dioxide, rained down on surrounding neighborhoods. The worst place to be, however, was inside the smelter. Workers “dangled over the furnaces breathing the fumes as they fed loads of toxic product into the furnace. They had to climb into flues, pipes, and ovens where the toxic soot, acidic gases, and intense heat pelted them. They scooped toxic mud out of those tubes” (pp. 82–83). Decades of exposure, the authors contend, ruined the health of generations of workers and people in the neighborhood.
The authors, Elaine Hampton and Cynthia C. Ontiveros, began this project from an interest in local history and a desire to see justice done for the former workers and the neighboring communities on both sides of the border. What [End Page 540] they chronicle is not surprising, but it is certainly infuriating: a powerful corporation, generating tax revenue and supporting hundreds of jobs, had decades of carte blanche to pollute and exploit their workers. Even state and federal regulators, the authors contend, aided in these practices, and profit margins proved more important than the health of the largely Mexican and Mexican American workers and residents. ASARCO left after the plant was decommissioned in 2009, and the smokestacks were torn down in 2013. The smelting industry, as the authors point out, has largely vanished from American soil, with the majority of active smelters currently operating in China. While all signs of the old El Paso smelter are gone, its legacy remains in the soil of the city and in the bodies of the workers. The former employees of the smelter and the city of El Paso will struggle with “contamination, illness, and early death” for decades to come (p. 138). Copper Stain: ASARCO’s Legacy in El Paso is a courageous book about the struggle of an even more courageous group of former employees and social justice activists.