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What? My House is Next to a Former Smelter?

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When you bought your house (this is strictly theoretical in my case since I doubt I will ever be able to buy a house), did your real estate agent tell you what toxic industries have historically been located near your new house? I’m guessing not. And if you are a homeowner near the old ASARCO smelter in Tacoma, Washington, the answer is definitely not.

Tacoma’s industrial history confronted Alex Stillman on a late spring morning while she was up to her wrists in front-yard dirt.

A neighbor saw the 27-year-old school nurse, part of the city’s influx of new homeowners, digging to plant a hedge outside her North 40th Street house and walked over to share some friendly insight about the neighborhood. The conversation sent Stillman inside to start learning things no real-estate agent or inspector had explained to Alex or her husband, Bryce, when they bought the place in fall 2014.

It fell to Google to tell her about the long-gone Asarco copper smelter that operated less than a mile from where her tidy 1940s bungalow stands, and that the lead and arsenic emitted from its 571-foot-tall smokestack for several decades had polluted her yard and thousands of others with agents linked to cancer and other serious health problems.

“How many people my age would even know what a smelter is?” asked Alex Stillman, who grew up in Snohomish.

In a deindustrialized age with very few of the unionized but dirty working class jobs of the not so distant past, probably not very many would in fact know. Not surprisingly, the history of this smelter is highly contested within Tacoma, with many of the old-time residents still blaming environmentalists for its closure (really it was about copper import prices) and holding on to that smelter identity that defines a lot of dirty industry towns that have died, or drastically changed in the case of Tacoma. With such a huge smokestack, the impact of this smelter pollution is spread over a much wider area than most dirty industries. There isn’t nearly enough testing of the long-term impact of this smelter on health but we do know the soil contains significant poisons. How this affects Tacoma property values will be interesting with so many people now moving there to escape Seattle housing prices.

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