The series Copper at the Crossroads takes a closer look at copper mining in Arizona. In the final part of the series, we look at Hayden Arizona, one of America's most toxic towns.
Hear part three of the series:
The mining company town of Hayden, AZ is home to the Hayden Smelter. It's also home to about 840 mostly Hispanic residents, many of them employees of the smelter or nearby Ray Mine. Both facilities are owned by Tucson-based ASARCO, part of Mexican company Grupo Mexico. Hayden's residents have long complained of airborne pollution, mostly from the smelter's 1,000-foot high smokestack. Many residents also suffer from an abnormal amount of health problems typical of lead and arsenic poisoning. Both compounds are emitted from the smelter.
In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a "finding of violation" against ASARCO, saying the company has violated the Clear Air Act by continuously emitting pollutants for the past five years. The EPA also classified the smelter as a "major" source of pollution and suggested that the state of Arizona hasn't taken enough action to enforce state and federal clean air laws in the town.
The EPA finding was released to NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, even as both organizations were conducting a joint investigation into pollution and regulation claims in the town, as part of their Polluted Places project. Both NPR and CPI released their reports November 11, one day after the EPA released their finding against ASARCO.
Both reports cited ASARCO's response to the EPA's allegations. Company spokesman Tom Aldritch wrote that the smelter is "in compliance with regulations and permits." He also promised the company would "vigorously" defend the EPA's conclusion that the Hayden Smelter was a major polluter.
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality director Henry Darwin also refuted the EPA's contention that the state had been lax in their enforcement of air quality laws in Hayden. He admitted that the state has been slow to act on complaints that the smelter is a polluter, but disagreed that it's a "major" source. Darwin called the EPA's November 10 finding a "paperwork violation."
But Jared Blumenfeld, administrator for the EPA region that includes Arizona, told NPR and CPI that his agency made the right call in determining the smelter has been violating air quality standards. He says the agency has a clear set of rules for copper smelters, and ASARCO's Hayden Smelter violated them.
It almost seems like a war of words between two government agencies. But caught in the middle are the residents of Hayden.
Jill Corona grew up in the town. She lives in the Phoenix area now, but still has family in Hayden. She worries that the EPA finding will go nowhere. Although Darwin says ADEQ is working with ASARCO to install more pollution controls at the smelter, Corona is skeptical. "I just want someone to tell me Hayden is safe," she told NPR reporter Howard Berkes.
Arizona Public Media reporter Mark Duggan talked with Jim Morris, the lead reporter for the Center for Public Integrity's Polluted Places project. Morris says his investigation found more than a "paperwork violation" of air quality laws in Hayden. He says residents have documented health problems common to lead and arsenic poisoning. Both compounds have been measured at high levels in Hayden, and in fact, ASARCO has admitted its smelter emits them. But not, as the company claims, in illegal amounts. Morris also says CPI will continue to follow developments in Hayden.