Memories of toxic rain in Ruston, and the smelter that shaped a city

The Ruston tunnel will soon close for good. And with the ASARCO smokestack long gone, there will be no visual reminders of the smelter that rained chemicals on the region for generations.

An historical photo of Ruston, its smokestack prominent in front of Mt. Rainier

An historical photo of Ruston, its smokestack prominent in front of Mt. Rainier U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The ASARCO smokestack in Ruston, circa 1940s

The ASARCO smokestack in Ruston, circa 1940s Historylink.org

The Ruston tunnel at the south end of the Tacoma waterfront has reopened, after being shut for weeks while a contractor worked on sewer lines. It's the same dark, narrow, creepy place, with an angle in the sunken roadway partly blocking daylight from the south, and nameless fluids seeping down the walls. No doubt, you still hear an end-of-the-world rumble when a train passes nearly overhead.

The tunnel is the last visible remnant of the huge Tacoma smelter that shut down just 25 years ago, after nearly a century of refining first lead and then, for most of its existence, copper ore beside Commencement Bay.

Some day soon, it's supposed to close for good. A new road will run closer to the water, where smelter buildings once stood, creating a more direct route from Tacoma to the Point Ruston development rising above the old smelter Superfund site. When the tunnel closes — and is filled with lightly-contaminated dirt — there will be no real sign that the smelter ever existed.

Yet it stood there for all but four years of Washington State's first century, emitting to the end more sulfates than Mt. St. Helens. Now, of course, Washington has gotten $111 million from the huge ASARCO environmental bankruptcy settlement to deal with arsenic and other toxic leftovers from the smelter's years of operation.

I remember, many years ago, looking out the window of a Ruston tavern at the smelter's 562-foot brick smokestack. The tavern stood on the bluff above Commencement Bay. It was late afternoon. We could see a smoke plume rise from the stack and drift with the prevailing wind across Dalco Passage toward Vashon Island. The smoke was gray, the forested shore of Vashon dark green. Wait till tonight, a guy next to me said. Under cover of dark, they really put it out. But don't worry, he said, watching the smoke plume drift out across the passage: The people on Vashon are the ones who get it. He didn't know I lived on Vashon. I wasn't reassured.

By that time, the smelter had rained chemicals on the surrounding countryside for generations. Built in 1888, it was rebuilt and reopened two years later by William Rust, who incorporated around it the company town now known as Ruston. In 1905, Rust sold the smelter to the Guggenheims' ASARCO, which subsequently modified it to refine copper mined above Alaska's Copper River. When the rebuilt smelter started up in 1890, Murray Morgan writes in his book Puget's Sound, “Tacoma was proud as the pollution plume of the new plant rose above the Indians' place of the maples and drifted north toward Seattle.” When the tall smokestack was built in 1917, it was the largest in the world.

“In the 1940's,” the EPA says on its website, “ASARCO poured molten slag … into Commencement Bay creating a 23-acre peninsula.” ASARCO didn't stop pouring in the '40s; decades later, people riding the ferry at night from nearby Point Defiance could see carloads of molten slag plunging into the bay amid great eruptions of sparks; on the Ruston waterfront, any night could look like the 4th of July.

When the Clean Air Act passed in 1967, the smelter was pumping 186,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air every year. Sometimes, the SO2 combined with water in the air to form sulfuric acid, which rained down and burned the leaves of plants. (The same process took place around copper smelters all over the West. More than a century ago, farmers sued smelter operators for damage to their trees and crops. Some of the first serious efforts to control air pollution were made not in the industrial east but at smelters in the wide open west. Before World War Two, an arbitration panel awarded the United States damages for harm done to Washington crops and trees along the Columbia River by sulfur dioxide emitted by a smelter in Trail, British Columbia. The Trail smelter case is a landmark of international environmental law.)


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Oct 7, 9:53 a.m. Inappropriate

The "smokestack" in the color picture is actually part of the scrubbing equipment (more of which was located in and around the shed to its right) that in later years removed much of the pollution from the output of the plant. Very little smoke emerged from the smokestack in the last years of its operation. The real smokestack (shown in the black and white picture) was taller than the Space Needle, and made out of masonry. I always thought that it should be cleaned up and have a rotating restaurant installed on its top. Of course, Seattle wouldn't tolerate a taller rotating restaurant in Tacoma of all places...

To me and many people I know, the view of Point Defiance, Mount Rainier and the Tacoma Tideflats as seen from the Peninsula still looks strange without that landmark. It's a real shame that there was no sentiment to preserve it.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Oct 7, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Tacoma's leaders should consider how much better off it is without the smelter when it considers whether the Simpson Kraft pulp mill still makes sense (regardless of what a majority of Tacoma residents think -- residents of towns dependent on industrial polluters often suffer from a form of Stockholm Syndrome). Having a polluting mill so close to high density residential areas in the Stadium/St. Helens neighborhood doesn't make sense for the future of the city and its people.

In addition to the story on the historic effects of the tunnel (there's a lot to cover there in the Ruston area as well as on the effects on Vashon) it would be interesting to see some follow up on the progress and troubles of the Point Ruston development -- are fancy condos built near a slag heap safe (for kids? for adults?)? Is the reclamation of that land going to work out in the current real estate market?

pika

Posted Thu, Oct 7, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

It took several years of work by the Puget Sound Air Quality to help rid Ruston of this pollution because our appeals to the legislators was met with "But that is their livelihood" and the workers agreed, "JOBS, despite health risks!".

HAK

henrykuh

Posted Thu, Oct 7, 1:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Let me ask a dumb question as a non-native.

Is THIS the source of the infamous "aroma of Tacoma"?

When I ask locals exactly what was the source of the sulfurous smell noticed when I first moved here long ago, and what happened to eliminate it (reduce it?) I get different answers from different people. No one seemed to know for sure.

Posted Thu, Oct 7, 2:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Read the headline too fast and thought you said "the smell that shaped a city."

sandik

Posted Thu, Oct 7, 4:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Jack - Great article. I grew up in Everett, when four pulp mills were still operating. The smell?

Nearly everyone in town described the odor as the "smell of money". Jobs, payrolls, groceries, college tuition - so you didn't have to always live in Everett.

Ross Kane
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Fri, Oct 8, 5:22 a.m. Inappropriate

So why didn't we learn about modern smelting and how this works with a clean environment?

Because scrappers deliver to ports where material is shipped to other countries with NO controls.

What are the costs for clean smelting? Is it possible? Are there examples of American ingenuity at work in this area? Does current govt regulation allow profitable, clean plants?

Posted Fri, Oct 8, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

"kilgoretrout" asks "Is THIS the source of the infamous 'aroma of Tacoma'?"

No. There was a lot of industry on the Tideflats that contributed to it, but the smelter wasn't part of it. I never associated a sulfurous smell in the mix, but there was a lot of industry there, and what you smelled depended on where you were. Some of the major contributors were:

The pulp mill. It's still there. The caustic solution used to break down the wood fiber into paper is very pungent, with a hint of skunkiness to it. This is the only one you really smell anymore, and on a sunny Fall day it actually adds a note of crispness to the air downtown. But if you get near the mill itself, you can sometimes even taste it in the air.

Hygrade's packing and rendering plant. Rendering could either smell like a backyard barbecue or a trip to Auschwitz, depending on how long whatever they were rendering was dead. Hygrade was sold to Sarah Lee and the Tacoma plant was closed.

Adams peanut butter plant. The peanut butter that paid JP's bills was a Tacoma product. While the smell of roasting peanuts was not in itself offensive, it could mix with other scents and in combination be truly nauseating. Adams was sold to Smuckers and the Tacoma plant was closed.

PennWalt, Hooker and Purex chemical plants. Pennwalt processed brine into chlorine and hydrochloric acid, used in a whole host of industrial processes including fertilizer and pesticides. I think Hooker and Purex did pretty much the same thing. It was not a major contributor, but it added an occasional acidic tinge to the mix. Pennwalt was told to the French firm TotalFina and the Tacoma plant was closed.

Various log sorting and lumber yards. Like peanuts, not in and of itself a bad smell, but it could combine with others to bad effect. Almost all log and lumber facilities on the Tideflats are now gone.

dbreneman

Posted Fri, Oct 8, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

A correction to my first comment: The scrubbing equipment shed is to the LEFT of the cylindrical tower in the color picture.

dbreneman

Posted Fri, Oct 8, 10:10 a.m. Inappropriate

dbreneman I thought it was a sulfur smell, but maybe just my nose. The smell reminded me of any of a number of paper-mill towns I've passed through all over the country.

Maybe it is some sort of mix. I just heard the rendering plant explanation last week. Seems every time I turn around, someone says the smell came from something else.

I guess it was multifactorial after all.

Posted Tue, Oct 12, 9:29 p.m. Inappropriate

The SO2 smell was the pulp mill... and principally one particular line, that was closed several years ago. The prevailing winds mostly carried the smell towards NE Tacoma/ Federal Way &/or the Puyallup Valley... but it used to wrap itself around Old Town & into the North End often enough.

In the early 20th Century until WWII there were thousands of apple trees (& other tree fruits) growing on Vashon.
One "fruit tree census" figure that I saw was 28,000 during the years between the World Wars. The predominance of the plume affected the east 1/2 of Vashon & (mostly) Maury Island... which is in line with the dominant SW winds in this region... and carried beyond Des Moines on the mainland.

The principal spray for many of those years was a light pink powder, arsenate of lead, that was still occasionally used into the 1980s (although generally replaced by diazinon). As an employee at Wax Orchards in 1982 and in charge of spraying (apples & cherries) I saw dozens of bags of the stuff in the "poison house"... although I never used any. Granny Wax said that's what her (late) husband, Augie, had used for years to discourage chewing insects. ^..^

herbert

Posted Tue, Oct 12, 9:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Additionally, (& this is hearsay) word was that arsenic was the last actual production mineral output from the smelter. ^..^

herbert

Posted Thu, Oct 14, 10:24 a.m. Inappropriate

A secret blend of herbs and spices made the unique Aroma of Tacoma.

That would explain the varied answers I would get over the years.

Thanx.

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