"Davis writes with passion, driven by the conviction that premature deaths among her family members resulted from exposure to industrial toxins....Davis presents a powerful call to action; recommended." Library Journal
"Another region of the southern United States haunted by poisonous secrets is that of El Paso, Texas, home of the ASARCO lead smelter. In his 1975 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Philip Landrigan detailed the toxic impact of lead residues on local children that forced the examination of every other smelter in the country. His work for the Centers for Disease Control showed that levels of lead that were insufficient to immediately sicken children permanently dulled their brains and nervous systems.
ASARCO's answer to this crisis was straightforward. Smeltertown families were booted out of their homes. When I visited the area in 2004, only the dead remained. The small local cemetery of marked and nameless graves was covered with blackened, windswept sand. Longer stones or slabs of poured concrete presumably indicate adults, and smaller ones outline those who died as children. The name and short life of Guadaloupe Carmona, 1925–1927, are handwritten on a poured slab1.
In the Environmental Law Institute's report for the Library of Congress in 1980, we described El Paso, along with Times Beach, as well-established cases of mostly historic interest, about which there was little left to learn. We knew that the lawsuit against the company had been settled and that the land surrounding the smelter had been bought by ASARCO for less than half a million dollars. The purchase was made on the condition that all the residents were to be removed so that their former home sites could be used to store acid tanks and railroad cars2.
But when I visited the region three years ago, I learned that some environmental solutions, unlike love, are not forever. El Paso's problems are not nearly as well resolved as I had believed. In fact the story has taken a strange turn. In May 1992, ASARCO set up two3 CONTOP (continuous top-feed oxygen process) furnaces. These hot-burning ovens never slept. All day every day, they burned tons of toxic wastes at 90 percent efficiency. This meant that just 10 percent of what they tried to burn ended up intact. Still, 10 percent of hundreds of thousands of tons of wastes fired over several years left enough metal poisons in the region that the furnaces were put out of business by the U.S. Department of Justice after operating just seven years4. Although many nearby businesses were long shut down, the smelter next to Smeltertown remained, along with the buildings supporting the U.S. Mexico dam and canal system.
A secret government memo released in 2006 from the EPA, written during the Clinton years, showed that so long as the furnaces were running, the company told the world it was recycling materials. Think back to the waste oil that Russell Bliss distributed or took to be burned in mills in Missouri. If this waste is laced with dioxin or heavy metals, then when it gets burned, thousands of tons of toxic agents get finely spewed back into the air over large regions. Recycling thus becomes a neat redistribution system, taking measurable solid wastes and turning them into immeasurable, ultrafine air pollutants.
Pollutants do not need passports. The residents of El Paso and Juarez know this, because they are joined by more than a century's worth of leaden soils and plumes that have crossed back and forth over the U.S.-Mexican border and left many zones uninhabitable. Commerce, of course, crosses borders as well. In 1999 ASARCO was bought for more than $1 billion and today is a completely owned subsidiary of Grupo Mexico5. They have declared their intention to reopen this century-old facility6. What happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars that ASARCO had set aside to pay for cleaning up El Paso? In a stunningly cynical move, Grupo Mexico was granted permission by the U.S. government to use that money to pay down corporate debt. Not a penny has been spent to remedy the damage from this longstanding pollution7.
At this time, ASARCO faces bankruptcy because of its responsibilities to clean up dozens of Superfund sites. Of an estimated $2 billion in cleanup costs for old ASARCO areas throughout the United States alone, the firm has set aside less than $100 million. The Steelworkers Union in Dallas used the Freedom of Information Act to unearth an EPA memo warning that any sampling of metals in El Paso could show that the smelter had burned illegal wastes for years. Many locals suspect the plans to reopen the rusted old smelter are just a ploy to keep the plant from being declared a Superfund site. If the company declares its intent to operate, it can't be prosecuted for having abandoned the area.
The signing and sealing of secrecy agreements about contaminated environments — just like those about defective cars or planes — is not a matter of child's play. It's perfectly legal and perfectly bad to allow health and safety information to be kept secret. Such secrets also handicap the ability of science to evaluate hazards. We are left with a policy that perversely allows that you can't ask about what someone doesn't want you to know.
As you open the pages of this book and join me at our web site, you will find long forgotten secrets exposed. You will also find a map that ensures that those of us who want the future of cancer to be different from the past, understand that keeping secrets about the things that cause the disease endangers all of us.
1 Residents of Smeltertown moved upstream two miles to Bueno Vista across from Anapra, New Mexico, and old Anapra, Mexico. In the 1980s New Mexico labeled Anapra, New Mexico, the most lead-contaminated spot in New Mexico and blamed it on the smelter. Since then three generations have grown up in Anapra, and the generations are suffering increasing horrific health problems. Word of mouth accounts are common about babies born without organs, born without a brain, fused-skulls at birth are common and doctors have privately told women it comes from drinking the city water when pregnant. The residents of Anapra have formed a community group and are fighting to get honest assessment of the extent of contamination from the smelter. Meanwhile, New Mexico, Mexico, and Texas continue to turn Anapra into the regional dumping ground — siting three sewage treatment plants, a regional dump, the electric generating plant, a quarry and other toxic developments at this residentially-zoned neighborhood (platted in the early 1900s).
2 Wal-Mart bought several hundred acreas of ASARCO-contaminated land just north of the old smelter cemetery for a whopping five million dollars, just after Wal-Mart was cited millions nationwide by the EPA for failing to observe storm water rules in construction of its properties.
3 The two largest CON0TOPs in the world, designed to smelt toxic waste (shredded automobiles, sludges) for "energy recovery" to provide additional heat for the concurrent melting of the ore concentrates. But ASARCO never got permission to smelt toxic waste — they were supposed to recover metals from all materials that they received.
4 The EPA began testing and residential cleanups in the early 2000s. ASARCO had shut down in 1999, claiming a historic low in copper prices. It wasn't until 2006 that the Federal Department. of Justice released an EPA secret memo from 1998, showing the fake recycling, the secret incineration of toxic waste for profit that ASARCO's ConTop furnaces had conducted for nearly a decade. The government had used ASARCO to dispose of Rocky Mt. Arsenal material (oil bearing materials, chemical weapon quench waters).
5 Carlyle Group is an owner of Grupo Mexico.
6 We believe that this may actually be a sham-intent, and that the fight is over ownership of the carbon credits from the Air permit 20345.
7 We also believe that the Asarco bankruptcy is a test-case for world-wide industrial interests to show how environmental liabilities can be shed — passed onto the people who actually suffered the damages in the first place.
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Devra Davis, Ph.D., M.P.H., is the Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. She was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in 1994 and also served as Scholar in Residence at the National Academy of Science. She lives in Pittsburgh. Visit her website at www.devradavis.org."