Unpleasantville

Mary Corona and Nora Arbizo sit on the porch and play a morbid board game. With a cardboard box lid between them, they tally up the sick and the dead. Drawn on the lid is a crude map of their street in Hayden, Arizona, a tiny mining town 90 miles southeast of Phoenix. They carefully place colored pushpins in the lid, marking each death or illness they recall. Here, a few houses away, Mary pokes a red pin into the board to record a neighbor's heart attack. Yellow pins mean someone in the house has survived a bout with cancer. The women make careful dots with black marker for the ones who have died.

"Ralph Lopez, he died of cancer, remember?" Another black dot on the board.
A little black dog, stomach swollen with tumors, watches from the edge of the porch.

The map is soon covered with dots and pins. About three dozen markers indicate cancer cases. Another two dozen mark heart attacks, respiratory diseases and kidney failure.

These are only the people they've heard about, in their neighborhood, in the past 15 years or so.

The Corona family knows about sickness firsthand. On the map, their own homes are dotted with pins and black marks. So are their friends', their neighbors', other family members'.

No one knows what's causing this death toll, which includes a cancer rate 50 percent higher than that of Phoenix. But the Corona family and a large group of area residents suspect the killer is the decades-old industrial facility that squats like a beast at the center of Hayden, its machinery embracing the town like outstretched limbs: the ASARCO smelter.

Owned and operated by the billion-dollar New York mining corporation, the smelter is the town's lifeblood. ASARCO money pays for everything in Hayden, in one way or another.

ASARCO's Hayden smelter is one of the largest sources of toxic releases in Arizona and in the country, according to state and federal records. Every year it issues tons of lead, arsenic and copper compounds, among other chemicals, into the air, in vapor and airborne particles, and onto the land, in great heaps of slag that are gathered into tailings piles around the town.

More than 200 area residents have signed on to a planned multimillion-dollar lawsuit against ASARCO. They believe that the smelter's emissions over the years may have caused a catalogue of illness among their friends and neighbors.

Attorneys are now working the claims in Hayden the way miners once searched for veins of ore. The Phoenix law firm of Radocosky and Shanker, with the backing of attorneys from Texas, held a medical clinic in Hayden last week to test people for traces of toxins in their bodies. A notice of intent to sue for violations of the federal Clean Air Act has already been filed by Don't Waste Arizona on behalf of Betty Amparano, a longtime Hayden resident who's also a key plaintiff in the bigger case. Two other Texas law firms, working with the United Steel Workers union, sponsored a separate medical screening in Phoenix.

The residents and the environmental group also say the smelter is issuing thick clouds of smoke at night, when state emissions rules don't apply, and that the town is often in a fog from the facility.

Townspeople say the smelter has shrouded their town in a blanket of toxic grime for years. They say they went to school across the street from the smelter while it belched out thick smoke. They describe holes burned in laundry left out on the line overnight. They show receipts for new paint jobs on their cars, paid for by ASARCO, after releases from the smelter peeled paint away.

Now, the residents and their lawyers hope to prove that the emissions from ASARCO's smelter have caused their health problems. Government studies of the town done in the early '90s didn't find any link between the smelter and the cancer rate in the town. Arizona Department of Environmental Quality officials, who oversee the mining facility, say the company is not violating its permit to operate.

Jerry Cooper, a spokesman for ASARCO in New York, says the Hayden facility is not causing any health or environmental problems. He declines to answer detailed questions about the company's operation or address specific concerns raised by the residents, but says the plant is in compliance with the law.

But the looming threat of a lawsuit has already divided the small town, a place where there are few secrets, where everyone knows each other and where everyone depends on the mine. The people who have taken a stand against the company say they've been branded as troublemakers. Those who haven't signed on to the litigation are anxious; they fear Hayden could become a ghost town if ASARCO shuts down.

The lives of people here revolve around the smelter. Many fear a lawsuit could mean the end of their jobs. But a large group of their friends and neighbors are now asking if they can afford the cost of living in Hayden.

The stillness in Hayden, Arizona, population 910, goes beyond peace and quiet. Most of its main-street stores are boarded up; even the local Methodist church displays a "for rent" sign. Only the police station and the sole remaining diner have cars parked out front.

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