Source of Air Pollution Gone, but Problems Still Remain

Source of Air Pollution Gone, but Problems Still Remain
reprinted from
The People
September 23, 1995

Tacoma, Wash. Air Pollution



For over 50 years, from 1919 to the early 1970s, Asarco (formerly the American Smelting and Refining Corp.) operated a copper smelter in Ruston, a small suburb of Tacoma.

Just what effect did the operation of this smelter have on the people who lived nearby? Frances Wilken and her husband lived close to the smelter for 28 years. "She watched her lawn die, her trees turn brown...." Her husband worked for many hours in soil now known to be contaminated with arsenic and cadmium. "He now has colon cancer and a brain tumor, and is in a near- vegetative state." (TACOMA NEWS TRIBUNE, Aug. 17.)

As a result of a class-action suit against Asarco and its insurance companies, many of the residents may receive various sums of money to compensate them for the loss of the value of their property, due to the contamination of the soil.

As one might expect, the NEWS TRIBUNE failed to point out that Asarco was negligent in the way the smelter was built and operated. It had a tall smokestack, the purpose of which was to carry sulfur dioxide to a point high enough above ground so that the wind would carry it away and disperse it so it would not be noticed.

But what would happen on days when the wind failed to blow? The sulfur dioxide, being heavier than air, would diffuse downward, where it could get close to the ground, and obviously have an adverse effect on people, animals and all nearby vegetation.

And what if any arsenic and cadmium originally present in the ores did not go into the crude copper (blister copper) in the smelting operation? If it did not go into the slag, some of it might very well have gone up the stack, and whatever did not condense on the inside of the stack would go out with the sulfur dioxide. On days when the wind did not blow, it would tend to settle onto the ground and contaminate the soil, and get into the lungs of anyone who had to breathe the air in the vicinity.

Why did Asarco build this smelter in this way? Why couldn't all the arsenic, cadmium and sulfur have been converted into useful forms?

The answers are that it was considered not profitable enough. It would have cost more to build the smelter to enable complete recovery of those three elements.

Because of capitalism and the insane motivation on the part of the capitalists to keep initial investment to a minimum to make the most profit, especially near-term profit, the residents of Tacoma were frequently exposed to bad air for over 50 years.