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Alcoa Aluminum-Wenatchee

The aluminum smelter at Wenatchee is owned and operated by Alcoa. The facility rests on 100 acres that are adjacent to the Columbia River, 11 miles north of Wenatchee, Washington, in Chelan County. The Alcoa industrial campus is 2,700 acres, which includes 1,700 acres of orchard land that was donated to Washington State University in 1972.

History of the Wenatchee Smelter

The Wenatchee Works was built in 1952 and was the first smelter in the Pacific Northwest to go into production after World War II. The construction was funded with private capital (as opposed to the extensive federal funding of production facilities that took place during the war).

The number of employees in 1952 was approximately 500, and the original production of aluminum at the Wenatchee Works was 85,000 tons per year. Two major expansion projects were undertaken in the 1960s, resulting in an increase of production capacity to 210,000 tons per year.

Aluminum Made at Wenatchee

The Wenatchee Works currently produces four types of aluminum product. These are pure sow, foundry sow, pure ingot and foundry ingot. The pure and foundry sow are raw blocks of roughly cast molten aluminum, which can be re-melted for any purpose. The ingots are cast in more specific shapes for use in the final products.

Community Involvement

Currently Alcoa - the owner of the Wenatchee Works - participates in three major community projects. Alcoa purchased and installed $450,000 worth of solar panels for local schools and agencies in 2006. The volunteer committee at the plant has raised $30,000 to date and has sent 866 packages to local service members overseas. Finally, Alcoa is the naming sponsor of a major regional multi-sport race called "Alcoa's Ridge to River Relay".

Alcoa Aluminum in Wenatchee and Asbestos

For much of the last century, various forms of asbestos were chosen as insulation when flames or excessive heat was a danger. Aluminum foundries such as Alcoa Aluminum in Wenatchee, as a result, were usually built using materials containing asbestos. One of the other properties of the fibrous mineral is that it is resistant to electrical current. In light of the high demand for electricity when refining aluminum, asbestos, therefore, appeared not only in plant structures, but also in heavy equipment and turbines in the plant. In addition, asbestos' imperviousness to acids meant it was used in lab equipment, benches and safety clothes. Asbestos, however, had a significant downside that was either not understood or at times deliberately ignored: grave and sometimes lethal medical conditions were found to be the result of exposure to asbestos.

Much of this asbestos was chrysotile. Corporate interests for a long time insisted that chrysotile was "environmentally friendly" - even in the face of mounting proof to the contrary. This chrysotile or serpentine asbestos was frequently mixed with brown or blue asbestos and used to create asbestos transite, which appeared for decades before being banned in building materials in the 1970s.

Asbestos transite possessed qualities similar to cement; it could be molded into working surfaces, laminated and sprayed onto pipes and ductwork. This form of asbestos did not present a health risk while it stayed solid. As this transite ages and become prone to becoming powdery, however, deadly, microscopic particles are able to flake off into the atmosphere. Asbestos in this state is called friable, or able to be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone.

Why Is Friable Asbestos a Problem?

When friable, asbestos fibers are easily dispersed into the environment. Breathing asbestos particles can lead to conditions like asbestosis. Mesothelioma, a rare but almost always deadly disease of the mesothelium (the tissue that lies between the lungs and the pleural cavity), has been shown to be linked with inhaling asbestos. When those particles of asbestos in the air land on food or in beverages and are then swallowed, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma may result, though they are less common than pleural mesothelioma.

Since scientific inquiry yielded increased understanding of the risks of asbestos exposure, workers today enjoy the protection of strict guidelines regulating the use of asbestos. The use of asbestos was more commonplace, however, when facilities such as Alcoa Aluminum in Wenatchee were built. Any asbestos remaining from that time may yet pose danger if containment protocols are not observed during demolition jobs.

The Hidden Hazard of Asbestos

Unlike many workplace injuries, which are easily observed and known about immediately following the causing incident, asbestos cancer can take many, many years to manifest. The symptoms of mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis - dyspnea, a persistent cough and pain in the chest - can easily be confused with the symptoms of other conditions. It is extremely important, therefore, that everyone who worked at or lived around places like Alcoa Aluminum in Wenatchee inform their health care professionals about the chance of asbestos exposure. In addition, family members and others who shared homes with these people are also in danger, as unless effective decontamination policies, such as the use of on-site showers, were in place, it was quite possible for employees to bring home asbestos on their persons or their clothing.

Sources

Sources

Alcoa - About Wenatchee
http://www.alcoa.com/locations/usa_wenatchee/en/home.asp

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/EHSRM/ASB/acmimages3.html

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal
http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/EHSRM/HAZEXCEPTIONS/a.html

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