Tainted Earth: Smelters, Public Health, and the Environment

Tainted Earth: Smelters, Public Health, and the Environment

Tainted Earth: Smelters, Public Health, and the Environment

Tainted Earth: Smelters, Public Health, and the Environment


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.


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 dynamite charges, and the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) smelter’s massive 562-foot stack toppled to the ground in seconds. Oblivious to the mixed emotions of his elders, the twelve-year-old representative of a new era said, “I’m not going to miss it. It polluted the air and stuff.”

The smokestack, once admired for its architecture and impressive size, a monument to U.S. twentieth-century industrial power, was reduced to rubble, covered in a huge cloud of arsenic-laden dust. As the stack fell, onlookers cheered. Was it because it was awe-inspiring to see such a massive manmade edifice reduced to rubble in just a few seconds? Or were they cheering because the stack would never again be able to rain down sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium on their homes and yards? Or was it because the stack demolition seemed to signal an end to the old fights over the smelter and its pollution, pointing the way toward reinvention and renewal— an escape from a choking industrial past?

The date was January 17, 1993. the smokestack, in some iteration, had towered over North Tacoma and the tiny town of Ruston for about a century, spreading its pollution at least as far as Seattle, about thirty miles to the north. While operating, the smelter employed many of Ruston’s residents and bolstered the . . .

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