The Vancouver-based ALCOA aluminum smelter is one of the most severely contaminated smelter sites in the United States. The facility commenced operations in 1940 and illegally disposed of highly toxic materials on-site until 1981. Cleanup is ongoing.
The Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) constructed the smelter in Clark County, Washington, on the north bank of the Columbia River. The 300-acre site is located approximately three miles northwest of downtown Vancouver, Washington. Between 1944 and 1970, several fabrication operations were added to the facility to form aluminum into finished goods that included wire, rod and extrusions. Alcoa operated the facility for approximately 45 years, until its closure in 1985.
It was in that year that the facility was sold to VANALCO. This company has since been sold to Evergreen Aluminum, which is owned by Glencore.
Alcoa still maintains ownership of some of the physical properties on the site, including the dock and alumina unloading facilities.
Contamination of the Site
Industrial wastes from the smelting and fabrication processes were stored in waste piles and consolidated in landfills scattered around the property. Hazardous contaminants in these wastes include petroleum hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cyanide, fluoride, trichloroethylene (TCE), low-level organic chemicals and metals.
It was later discovered that groundwater and soil had been contaminated with cyanide and fluoride. Approximately 50,000 people draw drinking water from wells within three miles of the site. Toxins have been found in the water and continue to seep into the groundwater and Columbia River.
Since 1991, ALCOA and the current facility owners, Evergreen, have worked in conjunction with the Washington Department of Ecology to analyze the grounds and determine where all of the landfills are located. Over 62,000 tons of contaminated soil were removed from the site and disposed of in toxic waste landfills.
Currently, the price tag for cleanup is approximately $42 million, with ALCOA paying for the majority.
Asbestos and Aluminum Foundries
For the majority of the 1900s, asbestos was used as insulation when flames or temperature extremes were a risk. Materials made with asbestos, therefore, were frequently utilized in the construction of foundries like the Vancouver ALCOA aluminum smelter. Along with being temperature-resistant as well as non-flammable, asbestos is also resistant to conducting electricity. As a result, asbestos was utilized throughout almost all aluminum smelters, as creating aluminum not only involves high temperatures but also uses large amounts of electric power. Asbestos' resistance to acids also meant it was useful in lab equipment, work surfaces and safety garments. And though the asbestos served its purpose well in preventing fire damage and in protecting life and property from high heat, it also exposed people who used it or worked around it to significant health risks.
Most of this asbestos was of the chrysotile variety. For a number of years, chrysotile was touted by corporations as "environmentally friendly" and the "good asbestos", despite scientific proof to the contrary. Used for many years in the form of asbestos-containing transite in aluminum foundries throughout the country, chrysotile - frequently mixed with amosite or crocidolite - was eventually disallowed for construction purposes in the 1970s.
Like cement, asbestos transite could be molded into working surfaces, laminated and sprayed onto ductwork and pipes. For the most part, new items built with transite were innocuous because the asbestos fibers were encapsulated in the transite. However, when asbestos-containing transite got older, it became prone to becoming powdery, which caused the deadly, microscopic particles to flake off into the air. Asbestos when it is in this state is called friable, which is defined as easy to crush.
The Problem with Friable Asbestos
Friable asbestos is dangerous since in this condition the particles can be readily released into the atmosphere. Diseases such as asbestosis and cancer are known to result from being exposed to airborne asbestos. In addition, exposure to asbestos has been shown to be the leading causal factor of mesothelioma, an unusual and all too often fatal cancer affecting the mesothelium, the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity. Ingestion of asbestos fibers, which may occur if those tiny particles enter the air and land on food or in drinks, can lead to pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma.
Because scientific inquiry resulted in more understanding of asbestos' serious effects on human health, people today enjoy the protection of strict rules controlling how to use asbestos. However, when facilities like ALCOA's Vancouver aluminum smelter were constructed, the use of asbestos was more common. And in too many cases workers used asbestos-containing materials when they did not have the protection of protective equipment.
The Ticking Bomb
One of the insidious aspects of asbestos exposure is that resulting illnesses can take many, many years to manifest - often decades after the worker leaves the employer. It can also be hard to identify asbestos cancer since their symptoms can be mistaken for those of other disorders. Those that worked in or spent much time near plants like the Vancouver-based ALCOA aluminum smelter should, therefore, inform their physicians about the chance of asbestos exposure. In addition, all those who shared homes with these people are also at risk; unless strict safety measures, such as the use of on-site showers, were in place, it was easy for employees to bring asbestos fibers on their persons or their clothing.Sources
Department of Ecology, State of Washington - ALCOA Vancouver Site
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal
US Environmental Protection Agency - Alcoa Vancouver Smelter