Toxic Trail Leads Faculty to Jobs, Health and Justice Project

The old smelter and towering smokestack in Ruston are gone. They have been replaced with piles of fill dirt destined to become an upscale housing development overlooking Tacoma’s Commencement Bay. But the site from which the American Smelting and Refining Company (Asarco) operated for almost 100 years left a complicated legacy which two Evergreen faculty members, documentary filmmaker Anne Fischel and environmental health researcher Lin Nelson, are exploring in their project, “No Borders: Communities Living and Working with Asarco.”

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Using video, writing and community networking, “No Borders” is chronicling the controversial pathway of this major mining and smelting corporation and some of the communities it shaped. It documents struggles of workers who fought for safer working conditions in the plants. It recounts stories of community residents who told time by the whistle and learned to live with the fine dust that ate away laundry and the paint on cars. It chronicles the persistent efforts of individuals and organizations to make corporations and government accountable to their needs for sustainable jobs and a healthy  environment.

During Asarco’s operations, tons of arsenic, cadmium and lead – all smelting by-products – were dispersed into the region. In 1983 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the smelter site part of the larger Commencement Bay Nearshore/Tideflats Superfund. The smelter was closed in 1986, and the towering smokestack, long a fixture of the city’s skyline, came down in 1993. Over the past few years, the Washington State Department of Ecology has tracked lead and arsenic contamination into Pierce, King, Kitsap, and Thurston Counties, leaving communities struggling with the long-term impacts of low-level exposure to toxic heavy metals.

In 1999 Asarco was sold to its Mexican affiliate, Grupo Mexico, and in 2005 it declared bankruptcy. According to an August 2007 report in the Miami Herald, Washington state is currently on a list of creditors, including 16 states, Indian tribes, the federal government and private parties, whose environmental claims total nearly $11 billion in about 75 U.S. locations. Asarco is also undergoing a corporate reorganization which its main union, the United Steelworkers of America, hopes will give workers unprecedented oversight of company operations and working conditions.

"Sustainability is too often seen as an exercise of privilege," Nelson says. "But it should be about the basic foundations for everyone’s environmental health."

Fischel and Nelson started “No Borders” in 2005 when they taught Local Knowledge: Community, Public Health, Media Activism and the Environment. The program emphasized community-based work, so the faculty members decided to do a project as well. Two and a half years later they point appreciatively to the community relationships that have enabled them to compile a file cabinet full of documents and 20 hours of video.

While their research began in Ruston, the project has led Fischel and Nelson to Asarco-affected communities in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. Their work is supported by the college and Evergreen’s Labor Center. The project is important because “it documents struggles to hold a major corporation accountable to standards of justice for workers, communities and the environment,” says Peter Kardas, Labor Center director.

At the heart of this project are questions about how communities and unions cohabit with industry, and how citizens assert their rights to information, democratic decision-making, health, and economic development that supports and contributes to community life. “Sustainability is too often seen as an exercise of privilege,” Nelson says. “But it should be about the basic foundations for everyone’s environmental health. Sustainability should include people dealing with the hazards of industrial society.”

The “No Borders” project will support partner communities by providing them with strategic materials they can use in their organizing and outreach, including a documentary film, a collection of writings by community writers, and a book dealing with corporate history, public health policy, and community struggles.

“The problems of industrial contamination, in the context of corporate mobility and weak regulatory mechanisms, can seem insoluble,” says Fischel. “Our work is shaped by the belief that people, working together, have the capacity to solve the problems they face. By showing the capacity of citizens to work effectively on what appear to be large and insoluble problems, we can encourage greater participation in issues critical to the quality of American life.”

For more information on the “No Borders” project, see

Suggested Reading

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
Jared Diamond. 2005. Penguin Group.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
William McDonough and Michael Braungart. 2002. North Point Press.

Leading Change Toward Sustainability: A Change-Management Guide for Business, Government and Civil Society.
Bob Doppelt. 2003. Greenleaf Publications.

Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution.
Paul Hawken; Amory Lovins; Hunter L. Lovins. 1999. Little, Brown and Company.

Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change.
Peggy F. Bartlett and Geoffrey W. Chase. 2004. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Principles of Sustainability.
Simon Dresner. 2002. Earthscan Publications.

The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift.
Andres R. Edwards. 2005. New Society Publishers.

World Agriculture and the Environment.
Jason Clay. 2004. Island Press.