ranking in U.S. for mesothelioma & asbestosis deaths
Arizona's asbestos industry dates back to 1872 when the mineral was first discovered in the town of Chrysotile. Properties such as high tensile strength and resistance to fire, heat, chemicals and electricity made it an ideal building material with many industrial uses. With hundreds of natural asbestos deposits in the state, the mining industry and production companies rapidly expanded in mineral-rich areas. Many Indian reservations owned asbestos prospects and distributed the fibers to local and national businesses. By the early 1980s, most mining districts — including the most profitable area, the Gila County Salt River region — had been shut down for threatening public health. Hundreds of miners and industrial laborers with a history of extensive exposure experienced serious health complications, including mesothelioma, a rare cancer that typically affects the lining of the lungs.
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The state’s asbestos mines were not the only sources of exposure. A 2008 report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) explains that in addition to the documented asbestos sites, limestone deposits in the counties of Gila and Pinal were contaminated. Occupational exposure has been documented in several Arizona industries as well.
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At least 103 known sites in Arizona contain naturally occurring asbestos, 96 of which are chrysotile deposits in central Arizona, specifically throughout Gila and Pinal counties. The highest concentrations of the toxic mineral occur in northern Gila County where as many as 90 deposits are found near U.S. 60 in Salt River Canyon. Minor deposits are also present in Cochise, Yuma and Coconino counties.
Historically, mine workers in Arizona were exposed to harmful amounts of the mineral at the jobsite. Except for a nearly complete stop in production during the Great Depression, chrysotile asbestos has been continually mined in Arizona since 1872, when natural deposits were first discovered in the Salt River region of Gila County. All such mining in the region ceased by 1982, but from 1913 to 1966 miners excavated approximately 75,000 tons of asbestos from more than 200 sites. High levels of occupational exposure are associated with three fatal respiratory diseases: Mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. Dangerous levels of exposure occurred in several other industries as well. Many industrial sites throughout Arizona have a history of using or processing asbestos, including copper mills, power plants and construction sites.
Arizona’s economy grew as asbestos manufacturers produced materials for commercial use.
W.R. Grace operated a vermiculite plant in Phoenix. The facility, also known as Solomon’s Mines, was a sister site for the company’s mine in Libby, Montana. Fibrous amphibole asbestos was found in the soil and dust near the site at levels considered toxic to public health.
Over a period of 53 years, 160 Salt River Canyon mines produced more than 75,000 tons of asbestos, while the production from an additional 60-70 mines operating in the area remains unknown. Miners who removed raw asbestos from the earth were at high risk for inhaling the dangerous fibers that they disturbed on a daily basis.
Asbestos was once regarded as the most important mineral resource at Arizona’s San Carlos Indian Reservation. Home to seven such mines, the first property was discovered in 1922 and asbestos mining on site generated approximately $500,000 worth of revenue by 1956.
Numerous other mines operated in Coconino, La Paz, Cochise, Yuma and Pinal Counties.
Glendale was home to a large vermiculite processing facility known as Ari-Zonolite. It received more than 212,458 tons of vermiculite ore from the W.R. Grace mine in Libby, Montana, a site infamous for asbestos contamination. Arizona ranks eighth in the nation for the volume of vermiculite processed from mines in Libby. Ari-Zonolite refined vermiculite ore between 1951 and 1964, and other businesses used the building until 2002. The facility contained multiple structures, including a one-story brick room that was formerly used as a boiler room. Raw ore was stored in the building until it was placed into the furnace to be processed.
A 2011 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigation revealed that three out of seven soil samples at the Ari-Zonolite site contained tremolite-actinolite asbestos. Residual asbestos contamination was also present in indoor air samples. The workers at the plant during its time as the Ari-Zonolite facility — as well as in the years following the company’s closure — were likely exposed to toxic dust on a regular basis. Additionally, as many as 6,059 Arizona residents living within a one-mile radius of the facility may have been exposed to harmful quantities of the airborne fibers.
Federal laws and regulations set by the EPA cover most matters related to asbestos use in Arizona. The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH), which works in tandem with the U.S. Department of Labor, oversees state-specific occupational health and safety issues. The ADOSH, however, has no jurisdiction in cases related to mining operations, which have traditionally accounted for the majority of asbestos-related health issues. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) maintains notification forms required for any renovation or demolition activities where asbestos is involved. Three Arizona counties, including Maricopa, Pima and Pinal have additional asbestos regulations beyond federal standards.
Arizona has been home to a number of lawsuits filed by individuals with mesothelioma or related diseases. The EPA, however, is responsible for inciting some of the largest lawsuits and fines in the state.
In 2008, the City of Winslow was ordered to pay a $240,000 civil penalty for violating numerous EPA Clean Air Act provisions. The city declared a complex known as the Apache Apartments uninhabitable in 2002 and demolished four buildings without completing proper asbestos inspections. Five other buildings in the complex also used asbestos-containing materials, yet city administrator John Roche ordered them to be demolished without following safety instructions set by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Many of the asbestos-contaminated materials removed from the buildings were hauled to vacant areas and burned, causing dangerous fibers to go airborne and increase the risk of environmental exposure.
More recently, the EPA fined Tucson-based Asarco $1.79 million, the largest environmental bankruptcy settlement in the country. The 110-year-old copper producer, which once operated as the American Smelting Refining Company, had a long history of releasing toxic pollutants such as lead and asbestos into the surrounding environment. A total of 27 of the company’s subsidies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after being named in thousands of asbestos lawsuits across the country.
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