An Inquiry into the Asarco Smelter at Tacoma and Resultant Widespread Soil Contamination

EPA Grant Number: F5C30521
Title: An Inquiry into the Asarco Smelter at Tacoma and Resultant Widespread Soil Contamination
Investigators: Sullivan, Marianne
Institution: Columbia University in the City of New York
EPA Project Officer: Hahn, Intaek
Project Period: August 1, 2005 through September 1, 2006
Project Amount: $93,550
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2005) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships


This research project is a case study of the Asarco Tacoma smelter and the historical antecendents of widespread soil contamination in the Puget Sound region. From 1890 through 1985, Ruston, a small town near Tacoma, Washington, was home to one of the country's most polluting smelters, which produced lead, copper, precious metals, arsenic trioxide, and sulfuric acid at various points during its operation. Owned by the American Smelting and Refining Company (Asarco), and primarily a copper smelter, the Tacoma smelter was unique for two reasons: it was able to process ore with high arsenic content; and it was located in an urban area. The environmental consequences of nearly a century of smelting include widespread arsenic, lead and other heavy metal soil contamination, contamination of sediments in Puget Sound, and arsenic slag, a by-product of smelting, dispersed throughout the region. The social consequences include: residents' concerns about health, as awareness of potential exposure to toxins is introduced into every day activities; lawsuits against Asarco; concerns about property values; and public questioning of the government agencies that were charged with regulating the plant and protecting public health.

The purpose of this research is to examine the historical dimensions of a contemporary public health problem (widespread soil contamination) and the nature of the regulatory, public health, community and corporate responses to the problem.


This instrinsic case study will use historiographic methods, including archival research and oral history interviews, to develop a detailed understanding of the origins of the current public health problem and how environmental decision-making occurred. In addition to the particular issues relevant to this case, the broader context of widespread pollution, the public health response, community concerns, corporate responsibility and government regulation will also be considered in the context of this case.

Expected Results:

This detailed case study will help to illuminate historical environmental decision-making regarding a complex environmental problem of contemporary significance. It will be of interest to environmental historians, public health practitioners, environmental regulators, as well as community members who are grappling with the ramifications of industrial pollution.

Supplemental Keywords:

Scientific Discipline, Waste, Water, POLLUTANTS/TOXICS, Contaminated Sediments, Environmental Chemistry, Health Risk Assessment, Soil Contaminants, Ecology and Ecosystems, lead, contaminated sediment, Human Health Risk Assessment, ecological impacts, copper, Asarco Smelter, heavy metal contamination, arsenic, ecological research

Relevant Websites:

arsenic, lead, soil contamination, smelting, environmental decision-making, history, historiography, public health,

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2006
  • Final