By New Times
By Connor Radnovich
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Ray Stern
By Keegan Hamilton
By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
Gilbert Olmos, Teresa's husband, reports getting kidney stones regularly, "the last one as big as a tooth." Jude Olmos, their son, has had lifelong motor coordination problems. Now a freshman at Arizona State University, he has also had a history of asthma, he says. Teresa's father, Ralph Martinez, took early retirement from ASARCO at age 48 because of medical problems. In 1990, the year the Olmoses' baby died, the family went through five funerals, Teresa says, all within roughly six weeks.
"You'd think that this was the Third World," Teresa says.
The reports of diseases extend beyond the Corona family. Dixie Munoz, 41, is also willing to sue. She says she has a heart murmur, diabetes and asthma. Last September, she says, she was hospitalized with chest pains, unable to breathe. Doctors found a tumor blocking her throat and a collapsed lung, filled with fluid, she says.
Hayden residents report other, less frightening ailments: skin rashes, blisters, and trouble sleeping at night.
Few people in town live past 60, residents say, succumbing to the variety of illnesses marked on the homemade map.
Last year, Betty Amparano, looking for answers about her family's test results, called a reporter. Not long after, an article appeared in Tucson's Arizona Daily Star about her family's health worries.
Shortly after, the Amparanos got a call from Steve Brittle of Don't Waste Arizona.
Betty's husband Ray answered the phone. "We always hoped that someone would help us," he told Brittle.
Steve Brittle pulls a thick stack of files from an overcrowded bookshelf in the small house in South Phoenix that serves as home and headquarters to Don't Waste Arizona, an aggressive, grassroots environmental group. Scott Meyer, who helped Brittle found DWA, cues up videotapes of the Hayden smelter while Brittle pulls out pages of reports from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
"This is the war room," Meyer says as he steps over Brittle, who is sitting on the floor, reading documents. From here, Brittle and Meyer have taken on dozens of corporations in Arizona, using federal right-to-know laws to force them to pay thousands of dollars in fines. Brittle was at the forefront of the campaign against the Sumitomo Sitix semiconductor plant in north Phoenix, and carries on a fight with the chip maker today. He's suing Sitix for defamation, accusing the company of spreading false information about him.
Tilting at ASARCO's smelter is Don't Waste Arizona's latest crusade. Brittle and Meyer began investigating the ASARCO facility in January 1997. They were researching another mining company with operations in the state, and Brittle decided to use ASARCO as a point of comparison. While going through the ADEQ files, he noticed a reference to an Arizona Department of Health Services study that mentioned a high rate of lung cancer in six Arizona smelter towns.
"That set off the alarm bells," Meyer says. "We call [DHS] the executioners. They get paid very well not to find any problems."
"We thought, 'Uh-oh, they're doomed if somebody doesn't step in to help these people,'" Brittle says.
As Brittle looked through the ADEQ file, he found "pages and pages of excess emissions" at the Hayden plant from 1991 to the beginning of 1996--and no action from ADEQ.
Brittle soon found that the Hayden smelter is one of the top sources of toxic releases into the environment in the state and in the nation.
Brittle and Meyer thought about filing a Clean Air Act lawsuit against ASARCO, alleging violations of federal air standards. They went to Phoenix attorney Howard Shanker, who has represented Brittle and DWA before. Shanker told them they should file the suit on behalf of someone who actually lived in Hayden. The Daily Star article brought them to Betty Amparano.
Meeting the Amparanos and visiting Hayden turned the DWA effort from an exercise in numbers and limits into an inquiry into the lives of real people.
Brittle says it quickly became evident to him "there's a health catastrophe going on in this town," citing the litany of illnesses the Hayden residents have described.
In the fall of 1997, Brittle and Meyer began videotaping the plant's operations. They believe that the tapes prove the plant is violating its permit by belching out smoke that's too thick for state standards. ASARCO is supposed to meet a 20 percent opacity limit for its main stack, and 40 percent opacity for fugitive emissions, or the smoke that comes from the other parts of the plant's operations. Opacity is a measure of the thickness of smoke, determined by a certified inspector's ability to see through the smoke.
On September 15, 1997, DWA's films show, a thick gray plume rises from the smelter.
"Look at that," Meyer says. "Looks like a damn fire in there."
Brittle and Meyer say they've since seen the thick, nighttime smoke several times themselves. "The whole town was under this thick fog, like in San Francisco or something," Meyer says.
Brittle also has a report, done by a California emissions inspector who is night-certified, that shows excessive emissions at the smelter. According to the report, done over three nights last November, emissions from the smelter stack were as high as 50 percent opacity at night.