The Environmental Protection Agency has taken tough enforcement action against a copper smelter in Arizona that has drawn complaints about toxic pollution for years.
The unpublicized "finding of violation" issued against the Asarco copper smelter in Hayden, Ariz., claims the company has been continuously emitting illegal amounts of lead, arsenic and eight other dangerous compounds for six years.
The finding also suggests that the state of Arizona, which has primary responsibility for federal Clean Air Act enforcement in the state, has failed to take meaningful action.
The EPA revealed the existence of the Nov. 10 finding to NPR and The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) as they were concluding a joint, six-month-long investigation of air pollution and regulation in Hayden as part of the Poisoned Places series.
In a statement to NPR and CPI, Asarco says the EPA's finding is "unexpected" and promises a vigorous challenge.
"Our smelter is in compliance with its air permit," writes Tom Aldrich, an Asarco spokesman. "Asarco works closely with its regulators and proactively seeks innovations as science evolves and environmental laws and rules are updated."
Henry Darwin, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, also says that Asarco does not exceed federal emissions standards.
"I think it's a clear attempt by EPA to make it seem as if the state has done nothing," Darwin says. His agency is responsible for issuing federal air pollution permits in the state. "We have no reason to believe that [Asarco] has crossed that [pollution] threshold."
He dismisses the EPA's action as a "paperwork violation."
But the EPA also notified Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) last week that Asarco has emitted excessive amounts of lead this year. In a letter provided to NPR and CPI, the EPA says its monitors detected lead at two to three times federal limits on some days during 2011.
The EPA also says its team of environmental forensics investigators spent six months testing and analyzing emissions at Asarco.
"There is no simple paperwork violation," says Jared Blumenfeld, EPA's administrator for the region that includes Arizona. "This is a question of whether a large facility that smelts copper has the controls necessary to deal with lead emissions."
Hayden is a poor, largely Hispanic community of 900 people with a long history of copper smelting and complaints about toxic emissions.
"I remember clouds of blue smoke coming down into the playgrounds in the community and coughing and your eyes burning," recalls Manny Armenta, 56, who represents union workers at Asarco.
Betty Amparano has two children who have tested positive for excessive levels of lead. She filed a lawsuit more than a decade ago and 200 neighbors eventually joined in. Asarco settled in 2005 during a bankruptcy and paid out about $10,000 per family.
Three years ago, the EPA ordered Asarco to remove and replace the soil from more than 200 yards in Hayden after finding soil contaminated with lead and arsenic.
"Why the hell did you take so long?" Amparano asks of the EPA's most recent action. "I'm tired of dealing with death after death after death."
Asarco insists its emissions are not responsible for health problems in Hayden.
The EPA says it hopes the company will voluntarily install expensive new pollution controls. The company faces millions of dollars in fines, which are typically reduced if the company agrees to comply. Legal action is also possible if Asarco does not take steps to limit its toxic emissions.
A separate process is underway that directly targets Asarco's lead emissions. It could take five years or more to force cutbacks in lead.
"It's not like it's a water faucet that gets shut off and that's it," says Jill Corona, Amparano's daughter and a photographer now living in Tempe, Ariz. She worries about the rest of the family still living in Hayden. "I just want someone to tell me that Hayden is a safe place to live and I don't want to wait more than five years."
Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this report. Additional reporting from this series — including an interactive map that lets you explore facilities that are emitting toxic chemicals in your town — is available on NPR's Poisoned Places page.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Let's return now to our series Poisoned Places. This morning it takes us to the town Hayden, Arizona. There's a copper smelter there, and the Environmental Protection Agency says that copper smelter has been continuously emitting illegal amounts of toxins for the last six years. They include lead, arsenic and eight other dangerous toxins. The EPA's finding means the facility's owner, Asarco, could face millions of dollars in fines and could be forced to install expensive pollution controls. The agency disclosed its action last week to NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, which were jointly investigating toxic air pollution in the town. NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: For the last century, copper has been processed in the smelter in Hayden, Arizona, a largely Hispanic town of 900, with a playground in the shadow of the plant.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN LAUGHING AND PLAYING)
BERKES: This is sound from video shot last month by the Center for Public Integrity. And the camera pans skyward, from three boys pushing and shoving at the top of a playground slide, to the smokestack rising above them.
(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS SHOUTING)
BERKES: Fifty-six-year-old Manny Armenta represents union workers at the Asarco smelter and grew up in Hayden.
MANNY ARMENTA: I remember clouds of blue smoke coming down into the playgrounds in the community and coughing and your eyes burning
BERKES: Nellie Acton has lived a half century on the same street in town...
NELLIE ACTON: There were times that we would wake up and we'd see little black dots all over everything. My mom would call them Asarco freckles.
BERKES: And Betty Amparano has two kids who've tested positive for excessive levels of lead.
BETTY AMPARANO: As a matter of fact we were always comparing to see who had more lines on their nails. And at that time, you know, we didn't even know that it could've been cause of lead. We had no idea. You know, we used to play little games, let's see who's got more lines today, you know.
BERKES: Asarco declined a request for an interview for this story but provided a statement saying its emissions are within legal limits. It's not responsible for any health problems in town and it will vigorously challenge EPA's findings, which essentially say Asarco persistently violates pollution standards.
The company has support from Arizona regulators, who enforce the federal Clean Air Act in the state.
HENRY DARWIN: I think it's a clear attempt by EPA to make it seem as if the state has done nothing.
BERKES: Henry Darwin of Arizona's Department of Environmental Quality says Asarco meets pollution standards and doesn't deserve EPA's attempt cut pollution even more.
DARWIN: They are not making an allegation that they have actually emitted pollution beyond those thresholds, just that they have a potential to. And at this point we have no reason to believe that they have crossed that threshold.
BERKES: Darwin dismisses EPA's action as a paperwork violation. But EPA told the state of Arizona last week, that its monitors in Hayden detected lead at two to three times the federal threshold on some days this year. Three years ago, EPA found so much lead and arsenic in the soil that it ordered Asarco to dig up yards around nearly 300 homes. Jared Blumenfeld is the agency's regional administrator.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Issues of lead exposure we take very seriously. There is no simple paperwork violation. This is a question of whether a large facility that smelts copper has the controls necessary to deal with lead emissions.
BERKES: The agency hopes the company will comply voluntarily and install new pollution controls. A separate process could force the company to cut those excessive lead emissions. But that could take five years, which doesn't encourage people in Hayden. Photographer Jill Corona lived there until a few years ago, but her family remains.
JILL CORONA: To the residents that are living there now, it's not like it's a water faucet that gets shut off and that's it. It's the end of it. You're done. It's not that simple. I just want for someone to tell me that Hayden is a safe place to live. And I don't want it to wait more than five years from now, or even a year from now, to hear that.
BERKES: Corona's mother Betty Amparano and 200 others sued over alleged health effects a decade ago. A settlement with a bankrupt Asarco in 2005 netted enough money to pay some medical bills, but not enough for a fresh start and fresh air - away from the copper smelter in Hayden, Arizona. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And at npr.org, we have details of an extensive investigation into toxic air pollution in Hayden reported with the Center for Public Integrity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.