Toxic Air Pollution from Copper Smelters Challenged

Dangerous emissions threaten the health of nearby residents


Jim Pew, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 214


Marti Sinclair, Sierra Club, 513-674-1983

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is failing to protect communities and the environment from toxic air pollution emitted by copper smelters, environmental groups argued today.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia heard oral arguments in a case (Docket # 02-1253) challenging EPA’s inadequate regulations for controlling toxic air emissions from primary copper smelters. Earthjustice is representing the Sierra Club in the case.

“Lead, arsenic, selenium and particulate matter from copper smelters contaminate the bodies of people living downwind and downstream,” said Jim Pew, attorney for Earthjustice, who argued the case today on behalf of the Sierra Club. “No one should have to face a higher risk of cancer or other health problems, just because they happen to live in the shadow of a copper smelter.”

Copper smelters operating in the United States emit staggering amounts of toxic pollution: more than 50 tons of lead, 30 tons of arsenic and 20 tons of selenium each year. In the towns of Hayden and Winkelman, Arizona, where two of the smelters currently operating are located, ambient arsenic levels are more than 150 times higher than Arizona’s health guidelines. EPA has estimated that the lifetime cancer risk for people living in Hayden and Winkelman may be as high as one in 100.

Copper smelters also have environmental impacts. Lead, arsenic, and the other metals that they emit are deposited onto water, where they persist in the environment. The Hayden Smelter, in particular, spews toxic pollution into habitat for endangered and threatened species.

“The toxic emissions from copper smelters threaten biodiversity in America’s Southwest, and the health of residents for miles around,” said Marti Sinclair of Sierra Club. “Sacrificing human health and environmental quality is not acceptable to us, and it is not permissible under federal law.”

Although the Clean Air Act required EPA to set emission standards for each of the hazardous air pollutants that smelters emit, the agency set only a particulate matter standard. Even this lone standard does not reflect the actual performance of the best smelters, and thus does not satisfy the Clean Air Acts’ minimum requirements for air toxics regulations.

The environmental groups also argue that EPA’s failure to consider the health environmental effects of copper smelter emissions was unlawful. Although the Clean Air Act required EPA to consider the “non-air quality health and environmental impacts” in setting its standards, the agency failed to consider the impacts on people and wildlife caused by the deposition of persistent pollutants (such as arsenic and lead) on water bodies. In addition, EPA never consulted with the Department of Interior to ensure that smelter emissions would not jeopardize endangered species, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

Sierra Club and Earthjustice hope the court will force EPA to set strong emissions standards for all the toxic pollutants produced by copper smelters, as the law requires – a step that should lead to significantly improved environmental quality and quality of life around these facilities.

The case is Sierra Club v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, D.C. Cir. No. 02-1253.

Click here for a downloadable soundbite by Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew. (3,467 kb downloadable AUDIO)

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.