Unpleasantville

Guyton says every place ADEQ monitors is above the guidelines. The real test, he says, is to compare Hayden with another comparable site, like Ajo, a former mining town near the Arizona-Mexico border.

Even then, Hayden doesn't fare well. Its arsenic levels range from 95 times as much as Ajo's down to five times as much.

What does that mean for fines and penalties? Well, nothing, ADEQ says. Like the smelter's quarterly reports, the arsenic monitoring is purely advisory in nature. The health guidelines, designed to warn people that health problems could occur if chemicals exceed certain levels, are not binding by law. Guyton says ADEQ uses the guidelines when considering new permits.

What the plant's emissions mean for the health of the people living in the area is uncertain. The state knows that the smelter routinely exceeds safe arsenic levels. The state knows the facility sometimes exceeds limits on other compounds. And the state is aware of residents' blood tests showing high lead levels.

But state officials have studied Hayden and other smelter towns, and they say they have found no link between living near a smelter and getting cancer.

In the early 1990s, a series of studies done by the state Department of Health Services found that people in smelter towns--including Hayden--died of lung cancer at a rate 50 percent greater than the cancer rate for people in Phoenix and Tucson. The elevation in the cancer rate couldn't be pinned on smoking, since people in the towns didn't smoke any more than people in the cities. But another DHS study, partially funded by ASARCO, found "no significant link" between living in the smelter towns and dying of cancer.

In other words, people were getting lung cancer in the towns, but that wasn't necessarily because of the smelters, the study said.

This left the officials "scratching our heads" as to the cause of the high cancer rate, according to Dr. Tim Flood, chief of DHS' Office of Chronic Disease Epidemiology. Flood, a soft-spoken man with gray hair and a Mr. Rogers-style cardigan, conducted the study for DHS.

But DHS did nothing beyond that study. No more tests were done to determine why people in the smelter towns were suffering from cancer to a greater degree.

Flood says there was nothing else DHS could do. Once the studies were done, he says, "as a public health official, that doesn't leave me many places to go."

No investigation was ever done to determine the effect of arsenic levels on the populations of those towns, either, even though, at the time, ASARCO was pumping out arsenic at a rate 165 times higher than DHS guidelines.

Flood doesn't think a study of arsenic levels in smelter towns would help. "Arsenic is already a known carcinogen," he says. "I don't see what the point would be."

But Flood and others from DHS did ask Pinal County health officials to conduct an antismoking campaign.

In fact, when asked whether toxins from the smelters might have something to do with the cancer rate, Flood talks about smoking--even though his own work found that smoking wasn't the cause of the elevated cancer rate.

"I can see how that would ring a little hollow to the townspeople [of smelter towns]," Flood concedes. "They'd probably say, 'Well, we like to smoke, and you found that smoking wasn't the cause.' . . . But even if we don't know what's going on, we do know that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, and quitting smoking is something people can do to improve their health."

Flood likewise doesn't have any answers when told about the arsenic and lead found in the Amparano family's blood.

"Well, arsenic is found very often in seafood," he says. "I hope whoever did the tests told those people to abstain from eating shellfish before he took them."

Flood appears to be content to leave it at that. But he does take exception to Steve Brittle's criticism of DHS as a do-nothing agency.

"I bristle at that," Flood says. "Because that is spoken by someone who has never done one of these studies and has no idea of the difficulties."

At the federal level, the EPA is waiting to see if a lawsuit will be filed before it takes any action, according to spokesman David Schmidt.

Brittle scoffs at the government's lack of action on the smelter.
"Environmental protection is basically a myth," Brittle says. "There are people out there who think the government is supposed to keep the air and water clean. It doesn't happen. If it doesn't fit the industry agenda, they're not going to do it."

If the people of Hayden want some action, Brittle says, they're on their own.

"The only way the people in Hayden are ever going to get redress of their grievances is if they sue the hell out of them," Brittle says.

Betty Amparano and Jill Corona are leading a small parade of suits and ties down the streets of Hayden when Texas attorney Robert Binstock stops and laughs out loud. He points to a street sign. It reads "SMELTER ROAD."

"Get a photo of that," he says to a photographer. "I have got to have a photo of that."

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