The facility that is today known as the Intalco Aluminum Works is an aluminum smelter near Ferndale, Washington. It is the largest facility of its kind in the United States, employing at its peak 1,150 people and sprawling over 300 acres. The facility is also notable for being the largest single consumer of electricity in the northwestern United States.
The Process and Facilities
The smelter began operations in 1966 and was soon purchased by Intalco and subsequently by Alcoa, making it an asset of the largest aluminum producer in the United States.
The plant operates three potlines, though currently two of the three are idled. The smelter is capable of producing 278,000 metric tons of aluminum per year, though its current capacity is approximately 90,000 metric tons per year. The facility is operated by 640 people - down from a peak of 1,150.
Aluminum is produced by a process known as Hall-Heroult reduction. This process calls for the dissolution of raw alumina (derived from bauxite) in a molten bath. This is then electrified, and a large cathode collects the aluminum through the process of electrolysis.
The amount of electricity required for the Hall-Heroult process is very large, and so aluminum smelters are often located near economical hydroelectric, wind or fossil fuel power.
The Intalco Aluminum Works is located in Ferndale, Washington, near Cherry Point along the Strait of Georgia.
Ferndale is a small town in Whatcom County with a current population of approximately 9,000. The economy of Ferndale is based primarily in agriculture, though along with this, several industries employ residents, including BP Cherry Point Refinery, the Conoco Phillips Ferndale Refinery and Alcoa Intalco Aluminum Works.
Asbestos in Intalco Aluminum Works
During the majority of the 1900s, in cases where extreme temperature or fire was a risk, the mineral called asbestos was used as an insulator. Aluminum plants like Intalco Aluminum Works near Ferndale, therefore, were frequently constructed with materials containing asbestos. Another property of the fibrous mineral is its resistance to conducting electrical current. Because of this, asbestos was utilized throughout nearly all aluminum plants, as refining aluminum not only involves high temperatures but also uses large amounts of electricity. As well, asbestos' imperviousness to caustic chemicals meant it was used in bench tops, coating materials and protective clothes. Asbestos, however, had a significant downside that was either not understood or at times deliberately ignored: debilitating and often fatal medical conditions were found to be the result of exposure to asbestos.
Generally, chrysotile was the type of asbestos used. In spite of scientific proof to the contrary, for a long time chrysotile was described by companies as "environmentally friendly" and the "good asbestos". This chrysotile or "white" asbestos was frequently mixed with amosite or crocidolite and formed into asbestos transite, which was used for decades before being banned for construction purposes in the 1970s.
Asbestos transite displayed qualities similar to cement; it could be laminated, sprayed onto pipes and ductwork and molded into working surfaces. For the most part, new items formed from transite were innocuous because the asbestos particles were trapped in the transite. Tiny fibers of asbestos enter into the air, however, as asbestos-containing transite gets older and becomes prone to crumbling. When it is in this state, it is said to be friable, a term that is used to describe materials that are easy to pulverize.
The Dangers of Friable Asbestos
Friable asbestos is dangerous since in this condition the fibers can be readily dispersed into the environment. Diseases such as asbestosis and cancer can result from breathing asbestos. In addition, asbestos exposure is the primary causal factor of mesothelioma, an unusual and almost always fatal cancer of the mesothelium, the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity. If the airborne particles land on food or in beverages and are then ingested, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma may occur, although they are less common than pleural mesothelioma.
During the past few decades medical researchers have uncovered a lot about the risks associated with being exposed to asbestos, and therefore there are strict regulations controlling its use. Asbestos use was more common, however, when places like Intalco Aluminum Works were built. Any asbestos remaining from that period may yet pose a health hazard if safety procedures are not followed during remodeling and demolition projects.
The Time Bomb
Asbestos cancer, in contrast to typical on-the-job injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the incident, may take many, many years to develop. Given such a lag between exposure and the onset of symptoms, a worker may not even associate the current condition with work he or she did 10 or more years earlier. It is very important, therefore, that folks who worked at or lived around plants like Intalco Aluminum Works near Ferndale inform their doctors about the chance of asbestos exposure. Such information can enable physicians to make accurate diagnoses; especially with mesothelioma cancer, the earlier the diagnosis, the better the odds of surviving or at the least of enjoying an improved quality of life.Sources
Alcoa.com - Alcoa: Intalco Works: Overview
Ferndale.net - Ferndale.net - Welcome to Ferndale
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal