New EPA Rule Will Cut Highly Toxic Lead Pollution from Copper Smelters


The overdue standards will reduce lead and arsenic emissions released by copper smelters


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced a new rule that will significantly reduce arsenic and lead emissions from copper smelters, addressing a major source of these highly toxic pollutants. The EPA states the rule will cut smelters’ metal emissions by 8 tons annually.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe, alongside Earthjustice clients, played a pivotal role in pushing for more stringent air quality standards at copper smelting sites. These groups will continue to fight to protect sacred lands and community health from the adverse impacts of copper smelting operations. Such advocacy is critical to advancing environmental justice, as the San Carlos Apache Tribe has been at the forefront of highlighting how industrial pollution disproportionately impacts indigenous communities.

Copper smelters are notorious for emitting lead and other hazardous air pollutants, including arsenic, benzene, cadmium, and chromium, which pose severe health risks to nearby communities. Arsenic levels have been recorded at 150 times higher than state health guidelines in regions like Arizona, home to the San Carlos Apache. This contamination poses a dire cancer risk — potentially as high as one in 100 over a lifetime, according to EPA findings.

“Today’s action is significant, but our fight for cleaner air and a healthier environment continues,” said Sierra Club’s National Clean Air Team Chair Jane Williams. “Copper smelters are some of the country’s largest emitters of highly toxic heavy metals. We will need to continue to work with the EPA and the tribe to ensure further reductions occur because these communities deserve no less than a complete commitment to the safety and sanctity of their lands and lives.”

Copper smelters’ toxic emissions persist and build up in the environment. Heavy metals, once airborne, can settle in nearby water bodies, poisoning the water and the fish that live in it. Smelters have operated for over a century in Miami and Hayden, Arizona, only a few miles from the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Because of this and the smelters have been allowed to emit enormous quantities of pollution during this time, lead, arsenic, and other toxic pollutants have built up and badly contaminated the water and soil on the Reservation.

“These long overdue cuts in smelters’ toxic pollution are welcome,” said James Pew, Director of Federal Clean Air Practice at Earthjustice. “But they are not enough. Even after these reductions, copper smelters will still emit enormous quantities of arsenic and lead into already badly overburdened communities. Far greater reductions are achievable, and the giant international corporations that own these smelters can afford to make them.”

While this new rule marks an improvement over the status quo, Earthjustice and its partners, including the San Carlos Apache Tribe, will continue to work with the EPA to address the continued emission of these harmful pollutants. Continued advocacy underscores the need for comprehensive environmental protections considering human and ecological health, particularly in communities already overburdened by industrial pollution.

The rule attempts to recognize and address the environmental injustices that have long affected indigenous and marginalized communities. It serves not only as a measure to improve air quality but also as a recognition of industrial activities’ broader social and environmental impacts on vulnerable populations.

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