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Tainted Earth

Tainted Earth: Smelters, Public Health, and the Environment

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Tainted Earth
    Book Description:

    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 Earthtraces 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6280-3
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (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 the mainland and the island, others surveyed the Ruston shoreline from their boats anchored in Commencement Bay. An estimated seventy thousand people turned out to watch, and many of the gatherings had a celebratory air. At the appointed time, a twelve-year-old boy pushed a plunger, demolition experts ignited...

  6. 1 The Tacoma Smelter
    (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 directions, and the rolling green hills of Vashon Island to the north—contrasts with the scarred smelter site where there is little vegetation: a burial site for tons of arsenic-contaminated soil and other toxic waste.

    Little known outside...

  7. 2 City of Destiny, City of Smoke
    (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 with Seattle, her neighbor to the north, one early-twentieth-century writer claimed the city’s tideflats would “promise her the manufacturing supremacy of the Pacific Coast.”¹ Tacoma did have certain advantages, including deep-water docks, an expanse of level tideflats...

  8. 3 Uncovering a Crisis in El Paso
    (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 Mexican American workers who raised their children in the shadow of the stack.

    A prominent El Paso company since the turn of the century, ASARCO was apparently surprised to learn in the...

  9. 4 Bunker Hill
    (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 ASARCO’s views on and response to the crisis.¹ Woodruff oversaw the operations of the Bunker Hill smelter in northern Idaho. Built in 1916, Bunker Hill was an enormous lead-zinc smelter that processed much of...

  10. 5 Tacoma: A Disaster Is Discovered
    (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 Sound Air Pollution Control Agency (PSAPCA), Rodgers pointed out that the Tacoma smelter had much in common with the El Paso smelter; therefore, it was a matter of prudent public policy to study local children’s...

  11. 6 A Carcinogenic Threat
    (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 Antique Sandwich Company in Tacoma and the Ruston Inn on the other side of the street. You can signal your municipal allegiance by where you choose to have lunch.¹

    Continue down Pearl Street and shortly you will be in Point Defiance Park, one of the largest urban...

  12. 7 Sacrificed
    (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 Bay and Dalco Passage, the snow-covered Olympic Mountains jut out of the sky to the west, and the green rolling hills of Vashon Island...

  13. Conclusion
    (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 smelting and its community health consequences over the twentieth century holds lessons for today, it makes clear that protecting health from industrial pollution requires an engaged and educated citizenry, funding for independent research, an alert and proactive public health community, and strong public and government commitment to...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 175-226)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 227-238)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 239-242)