The Phelps Dodge Copper Plant was a copper production facility located in Maspeth, Queens, New York. The company operated from 1834 until it was acquired by Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc. on March 19, 2007. Freeport-McMoRan now runs the Maspeth facility.
History of Phelps Dodge
Phelps Dodge was founded in 1834 as a company that specialized in importing and exporting. The primary commodity for the young company was cotton, which it would export to England in exchange for tin, iron and copper. Phelps Dodge became familiar with the ore trade in this way and eventually began its own mining operations. Phelps Dodge expanded into copper wire and cables - increasingly important with the advent of the telegraph and the other metal demands of the industrial revolution.
Phelps Dodge expanded into overseas markets, particularly in South America, and developed its mining holdings. At the peak of the company's success, prior to the 2007 merger, Phelps Dodge employed 15,000 people.
The Phelps Dodge Copper Plant at Maspeth
The Phelps Dodge Copper Plant is a 35-acre industrial property that has been the site of various manufacturing operations involving aluminum, copper, copper sulfate, copper sulfate pentahydrate, nickel, phosphate and sulfuric acid. It is the subject of an ongoing legal battle over environmental pollution and remains one of the most polluted sites in the United States.
The Phelps Dodge Plant site is listed as a Class 2 inactive hazardous waste disposal site. This classification indicates that it is considered to be a significant threat to public health. Though several options for handling the contamination at the site exist, the one most favored calls for a cap of concrete and asphalt to be placed over the property. This would stabilize the soil and prevent water from leaching through the hazardous materials.
The Phelps Dodge Copper Plant and Asbestos
In much of the 1900s, asbestos was chosen as a building material whenever flames or temperature extremes were a risk. Therefore, it was not uncommon for foundries such as the Phelps Dodge Copper Plant to be built with asbestos-containing materials. Resistance to electrical current is perhaps a less well-known property of various types of asbestos. Since copper manufacturing not only requires heating raw materials to very high temperatures but also utilizes large amounts of electricity, asbestos was used throughout nearly all copper plants. In addition, asbestos' ability to withstand chemicals meant it was used in lab equipment, counter tops and protective garments. Asbestos, however, carried a major downside that was either not known or sometimes deliberately ignored: debilitating and often lethal medical conditions were found to be the result of exposure to asbestos.
For the most part, chrysotile was the variety of asbestos utilized. Corporations for a long time claimed that chrysotile was "environmentally friendly" - even in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary. This chrysotile or "white" asbestos was frequently mixed with amosite or crocidolite and used to create asbestos-containing transite, which was used for many years before it was outlawed in building materials in the 1970s.
Asbestos transite could be molded into working surfaces and laminated just as cement could. Generally, new items built with transite were considered innocuous since the asbestos fibers were encapsulated in the transite. With age, however, this transite grows prone to becoming powdery, allowing tiny fibers to flake off into the atmosphere. Asbestos when it is in this condition is called friable, a term that is used to describe material that is easy to crush.
Why Friable Asbestos Is Bad
Friable asbestos is dangerous since in this form the particles can be easily released in the environment. Breathing asbestos particles can cause diseases like asbestosis. Another rare, but often fatal, asbestos-related disease is mesothelioma. The pleural form of the illness, one which attacks the lining between the lungs and the pleural cavity, is the most common. Pericardial and peritoneal mesothelioma are linked to ingesting fibers of asbestos, which is likely if microscopic particles become airborne and settle on food or drinks.
Mounting pressure from concerned citizens, medical scientists and the press resulted in rules controlling the use of asbestos. However, when facilities such as the Phelps Dodge Copper Plant were first operating, asbestos was much more common. And even now, asbestos from the past may be the source of danger if it is disturbed during remodeling projects.
The Lurking Danger of Asbestos
One of the insidious aspects of asbestos exposure is the resulting illnesses may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to manifest - frequently decades after a worker has retired from the employer. It can also be hard to diagnose asbestos cancer since the symptoms resemble the symptoms of other, less serious conditions. People that were employed by or spent much time near sites such as the Phelps Dodge Copper Plant should, accordingly, inform their physicians about the chance of asbestos exposure. Moreover, all those who shared homes with these people are also in danger, as unless strict decontamination protocols, including using workplace-only clothing and on-site showers, were followed, it was all too easy for people to bring home asbestos particles on their persons or their clothes.Sources
Freeport-McMoRan - History
Phelps-Dodge - History and More (Archived Website)
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal