Unpleasantville

The town slopes downhill toward Highway 177. Most of the homes cling to the sides of the twisting streets. The houses that are battered and in disrepair stand in stark contrast to the brand-new town hall and senior center.

The quiet is shattered at regular intervals by the wailing of the siren announcing shift changes at the plant, the true heart of the town, rising above Hayden's playground and public pool. The streets of Hayden get as close as they ever do to busy as cars and trucks carry people back and forth from the facility.

The ASARCO smelter is part of the complex that extracts rock from the giant pit of the Ray mine and turns it into nearly pure copper. The rock is carried in boxcars along the Copper Basin Railway to the plant, where it is crushed and processed and melted into 750-pound copper anodes.

The plant releases tons of lead, arsenic and copper compounds every year, according to documents filed by ASARCO with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Most of the metals flow from the plant in the form of slag, a molten by-product of the smelting process. The facility also releases sulfur dioxide and arsenic into the air.

The health effects of these compounds, especially lead and arsenic, are well-documented. Information on the compounds can be found in public health reports and journals. Lead, which is listed as a carcinogen by the EPA, can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, and accumulates in the body, causing lead poisoning. In children, lead can hinder development. It can also cause birth defects, and kidney damage.

Arsenic is a known poison and cause of lung and skin cancer. It can cause a wide array of illness, including birth defects, heart dysfunction, skin rashes and nerve damage.

Sulfuric acid, also produced and released by the plant, can burn and irritate the skin and make it difficult to breathe.

The plant's releases have dropped in the past 10 years. But the amount of slag and other toxins put out by the plant is still high enough to place the smelter among the top 20 polluters nationwide.

It's dirty, demanding work, but work that pays well for small-town Arizona. Few other jobs offer $15 an hour or more with only a high school diploma. The people in Hayden, many of them Hispanic, are well-dressed, and new cars are parked next to old junkers.

The town, like others in the Gila Basin, started as a mining camp. It is named for Charles Hayden, the founder of the area's first mining company. Saying "mining is a way of life here" doesn't even begin to cover it. Hayden exists only because of the mine.

Not many people question the daily facts of life here, and, for a long time, the Corona family was no different. Betty Corona Amparano and Teresa Martinez Olmos are cousins, and now, two key figures in the legal drama being played out in Hayden. Both share the Corona family name through their grandparents, as do a wide circle of others in town who have joined them in challenging the company.

When asked why they started wondering about the relationship between their health and the smelter, there's a standard, half-joking reply from everyone in the Corona circle: "It's all Jill's fault."

Jill Corona, 19, is Betty Amparano's daughter, the oldest of nine children. In a town where nothing ever happens, she carries a notebook-size day planner and scribbles in it constantly. After a flood devastated the Hayden area in 1993, she wrote to Geraldo Rivera and tried to get him to do a show that would feature the town's struggle. At 16, she tried to start a youth center in Hayden. She recently posed for Japanese Lowrider, an international auto magazine. And at car shows, she signs autographs in a bikini as poster girl "Inca."

But it was a student filmmaker who got Jill and her family wondering about the illnesses they'd always assumed were just a part of life.

Corona met Ali Grossman, a University of Arizona student and Tucson native, while the two were working on a film that included a scene from Hayden. Ali was the script supervisor, and she overheard Jill talking about the town's problems and her own difficulties in getting a youth center started.

Grossman decided to do a short documentary about Hayden's young people, using Jill as her guide. But when she began filming interviews with Jill and her mother, Betty, the topic turned more and more to the family's health problems. Grossman filmed more stories about the town's history, and less about Jill's youth center.

During one interview, Betty said, almost offhandedly, "Yeah, a lot of people die of cancer here," Grossman recalls.

Sitting in the basement editing suite at UofA, Grossman played and replayed the film. "I just kept going back to that one shot of Betty and Jill sitting in the playground, and Betty casually mentioning, 'A lot of people die here,'" she says.

Grossman started asking her father, a physician, about cancer. She also took a sample of dirt from the Amparanos' yard, and sent it to a laboratory for testing.

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