Unpleasantville

Binstock is in Hayden with Phoenix attorney Howard Shanker, another lawyer, a toxicologist and paralegal. Shanker won't say much about the lawsuit he might file, but says he has signed up more than 200 residents as potential plaintiffs; he expects more to join the case.

"These people have been abused by ASARCO and ignored by the rest of society for too long," Shanker says. "We're hopeful that ASARCO will step up and do the right thing. If not, we're prepared to see this through to the end."

Shanker and his partner, Dan Radocosky, have teamed up with Binstock's Texas firm and another Texas attorney, Newton Schwartz, to take on the massive case. In Texas, Binstock represented San Antonio residents who claimed they were exposed to lead-contaminated soil during the building of the Alamodome sports arena. The case was settled for $2.6 million. In Houston, Schwartz brought a class-action suit against the city for selling lead-contaminated housing to low-income buyers.

Last week, at a medical screening sponsored by the Phoenix attorneys, Hayden residents gave blood and urine samples, and had their lungs x-rayed at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. Fliers advertising the screening were distributed throughout the area. According to Teresa Olmos, about 200 people showed up, including "some people I never would've expected to see." Not all of the people who attended the screening also signed on as clients, but some did, Olmos says.

The Phoenix attorneys and their Texas partners aren't the only lawyers who have targeted Hayden as a potential source of clients.

Jonathon David and Joseph Bruegger, two other Texas attorneys, sponsored a separate medical screening for Hayden union members last week in Phoenix. Bruegger represented about 2,500 Australian women in a breast implant lawsuit against Dow Corning. David worked with the Texas law firm Baron & Budd when it sued Hughes Aircraft and the City of Tucson for millions of dollars because of groundwater contamination.

David declined to comment in detail on the medical tests, saying it's too soon to know anything yet.

"The steelworkers have been concerned about health problems related to facilities all over the country for a number of years," he says. "We don't know if anything will even be found."

This isn't the first time ASARCO has faced batteries of attorneys arguing over polluted neighborhoods. A century of mining throughout the country has left the company with some expensive messes.

In Tacoma, Washington, ASARCO settled a lawsuit in 1995 over its long-closed smelter. The company agreed to pay as much as $67.5 million to residents and to haul contaminated soil to a special dump site. In that case, company officials knew as far back as 1972 that homeowners' yards near the smelter had high levels of toxic metals, but chose to "let sleeping dogs lie," according to court records. During the suit, which lasted for four years, the company spent $200,000 a year on a publicity campaign to convince residents that cleanup wasn't necessary.

Bitter legal maneuvering over ASARCO's smelter in Globeville, Colorado, ended in a settlement in 1993 that included $38 million to clean up the soil. Yards in Globeville have been dug up and hauled away, then replaced with new topsoil. Residents get regular blood and health screenings.

In 1996, the mining company was ordered to pay a $3.25 million fine, plus an additional $1 million in cleanup costs for lead releases from a refinery in Omaha.

Supervisors at the Hayden plant did not return calls for comment for this article.

Jerry Cooper, director of corporate communications for ASARCO in New York, won't respond to the specific allegations being raised by Hayden residents or Don't Waste Arizona.

"You're asking me for comment on hearsay, and frankly, it's just stupid to get into that," Cooper says.

But Cooper denies the Hayden smelter has violated any laws or that it has caused any health problems.

"I do not believe that there is any basis to concerns about health claims in the Hayden area," he says.

Cooper downplays the possibility of litigation against the smelter.
"If there's people who believe that they've been injured, I'm sure they will act on that," Cooper says. "Likewise, if there are people who've been talking to lawyers who think that they can make some money off of a lawsuit, I'm sure they will act on that as well."

The prospect of a lawsuit against the smelter has many people in Hayden on edge. Without ASARCO, nobody gets a paycheck.

Everyone in the area depends on the Company, which is spelled with a capital "C" as in Christ in the local paper. Either you work for ASARCO, or you work for the local government, which receives 90 percent of its taxes from ASARCO.

ASARCO sponsors the Little League, contributes to the high school's fund raisers, gives money and food to the local senior center, and even helped pave the area around the local Catholic church.

"It's a one-industry town, and everyone lives off that one moneymaker, essentially," says Father Kevin Clinch, the priest of St. Joseph's parish.

Clinch, a balding man in his 30s, is decked out in a Diamondbacks jersey, picking up broken bottles and litter from the side of the highway. Clinch has been assigned to St. Joe's for 10 years and ministers to roughly 400 families in the area. About half the area's population is Catholic.

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