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.

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The ASARCO smokestack in Ruston, circa 1940s

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.

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.)

Kids who lived near the smelter soon learned that when weather conditions brought acid raining down on the neighborhood shrubbery, the “smelter man” would come door-to-door with a pocket full of cash, paying people on the spot for their damaged plants. The smelter's location in the old company town of Ruston had protected it from Tacoma taxes or regulation for generations.  In 1969, a Tacoma city councilman said that the smelter raining pollutants from its Ruston sanctuary was "like somebody standing on the other side of the city line with a thirty-aught-six and firing it into Tacoma."

But Ruston did not provide a refuge forever. Under the Clean Air Act, the state set up a Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency, and in 1968 the new agency ordered ASARCO to reduce its SO2 emissions by 90 percent. The company reduced them by roughly one-half, and got a series of variances that excused it from doing more.

In 1972, lead pollution from an ASARCO smelter in El Paso got a lot of press (the recent settlement includes $52 million to clean up that site), and attorney William Rodgers (now the University of Washington's Stimson Bullitt Professor of Law) suggested that PSAPCA see if lead posed a danger near the Tacoma smelter, too. When local public health agencies checked for lead, they also checked for arsenic. On Vashon, they found arsenic in the playground dust at the since-demolished Burton Elementary School. That didn’t seem like a good sign. Neither did the high arsenic levels found in the blood of Vashon kids or the even higher levels in kids living closer to the smelter.

In 1973, PSAPCA proposed the first arsenic emission standard in the United States. Two years later, the company said it had cut visible emissions by more than two-thirds but couldn’t cut them more without simply shutting down. Alaskan ore was a distant memory; the old smelter's whole raison d'etre was smelting high-arsenic ores from the Philippines. (The copper was worth less than gold and other impurities refined from the ore.) In 1978, the company got a variance for five years.

By that time, Clean Air Act amendments required the EPA to identify hazardous pollutants and to propose emission standards that would protect the public from them. The agency identified arsenic in 1980 but did not propose a standard. The state of New York, concerned about arsenic emissions from the Corning Glass Works, sued EPA in federal court to force the agency to do so. In January 1983, the court ordered EPA to propose an arsenic standard within six months. The agency complied. Three days before the EPA acted, The Wall Street Journal reported that the proposed standards would be less stringent than many agency officials had expected, because tougher standards would have forced the Tacoma smelter to shut down.

The EPA ordered ASARCO to install secondary hooding. The agency calculated that the status quo was producing up to four cases of lung cancer a year. With secondary hooding, the smelter’s arsenic emissions would produce up to one case. Was that OK? Should society accept one human sacrifice a year for a $22 million annual payroll and 575 jobs? The agency held public meetings within range of the smelter plume to talk about it.

The New York Times suggested that the public was being asked to act like a Roman emperor turning thumbs up or thumbs down for a defeated gladiator. The Times ran a very pointed editorial: "'For me to sit here in Washington and tell the people of Tacoma what is an acceptable risk would be at best arrogant and at worst inexcusable.’ That’s William Ruckelshaus, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, explaining his reasons for polling the citizens of Tacoma as to whether they want to accept a higher risk of cancer from the arsenic emitted by a copper smelter or risk losing jobs if the smelter company is forced to clean up its act.

"Mr. Ruckelshaus has it all upside down. What is inexcusable is for him to impose such an impossible choice on Tacomans."

Ruckelshaus now says he was frankly ticked off by the editorial. (He had been asked to reprise his role as first head of the EPA in order to restore public faith in the agency after the Reagan administration's early years. When he was sworn in, Reagan referred to him as Mr. Clean, and journalists referred to Congressional investigations of mismanagement and politicial manipulation at EPA.) He thought the Times got it all wrong; a better analogy would have been an emperor asking the gladiators what they thought. “No one ever asked the gladiator his opinion,” Ruckelshaus wrote to the Times, “which may be the principal difference between Rome and the E.P.A.”

Telling the people what was going on and asking them what they thought still doesn't strike him as unreasonable. “I would certainly like to know what the people who will be affected by it think,” he says. Giving those people a chance to be heard worked out pretty well. “I thought it was a success,” Ruckelshaus says. “I became a great believer that if you open up to the public all those things you are trying to deal with … you can learn a lot.”

In fact, the smelter discussion was “similar to the collaborative process [for resolving big public policy issues] that I've come to believe in so strongly.” It was one of the first times he tried such an approach. He never expected the public to choose for him: “It's not a decision I could delegate.”

But it wasn't a decision he ever had to make. As it happened, neither Tacomans nor the EPA really had to weigh jobs against public health. In the spring of 1985, just 25 years ago, the smelter closed for good. “Some say the proposed costs of environmental controls to contain the arsenic led ASARCO to shut down the smelter,” reporter Mary Ann Gwinn wrote three years later in The Seattle Times. “Others lay the closure at the feet of Third World countries, which could smelt copper with cheap labor and few environmental restrictions.” The first of the 500 workers got layoff notices at the beginning of March that year.

The smelter’s tall smokestack stood over the waterfront for nearly eight more years. It had the look of a monument that would dominate the landscape for generations, for centuries, like a Roman aqueduct or a Mayan pyramid. But no. On January 17, 1993, at 35 minutes past noon, while an estimated 70,000 people watched from boats and sidewalks and back yards and parked cars, the towering smokestack was imploded, blasted into a pile of 2.5 million bricks.

The stack now exists only in memory. The arsenic that once streamed from it remains in more tangible form. The soils in backyards all around the smelter, the same yards in which a rain of sulfuric acid once burned the shrubbery, were full of arsenic. Tons upon tons of that topsoil have subsequently been dug up and hauled away.

Some 15 years after the smelter had shut down, the King County Health Department found elevated arsenic levels in the dirt near Vashon’s brand-new Chautauqua Elementary School. Health department researchers found even higher levels of arsenic and lead at parks and daycare centers in other parts of the island. At a popular preschool, one spot in the yard turned out to have high arsenic and lead levels. Parents freaked out, and some pulled their kids out of the school. Eventually, the state hauled away a lot of topsoil, hauled in a lot of clean dirt, spread wood chips, and put big rocks in the stream bed. Soil at the public school and a couple of other childcare sites has already been cleaned up, too. Settlement money may be used to remove or dilute contaminated soil at many more sites on the island and mainland.

Even so, beyond the easily identified hotspots, the historical shadow of the old smelter plume persists, like the fossilized cast of a long-vanished bone or leaf. Arsenic and lead deposited long ago lie undisturbed beneath buildings and roads. Outside the city, they lie beneath the grass, the forest duff, the shiny-leafed salal. Centuries from now, people willing to dig down a bit will probably find them there still.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.