Becoming a Ghost Town: The Superfund of Hayden, Arizona

Hayden, Arizona faces depopulation and pollution due to the nearby copper smelter that provided most of the town's jobs over the last century.

Unlike scenic towns in Colorado and Idaho, Hayden, Arizona has been unable to shift its economic focus to tourism. According to one article, it lacks “charm” and is too polluted to attract visitors. Today Hayden’s very existence is threatened by depopulation: it has lost 75% of its people since 1920. Residents worry that if things don’t change soon, Hayden could be abandoned entirely. Like other cities in this tour, Hayden was built as a company town in the early 20th century close to the nearby source of jobs: a copper smelter. Kennecott built the smelter and operated the nearby mine that supplied the ore, but eventually both were bought by the Arizona-based mining company ASARCO in 1986. The smelter in Hayden has released a staggering amount of toxic metals into the air throughout the years and is responsible for adverse health effects on the townspeople.

Pollution and the health problems that come from it have divided the town. Some demand justice for ASARCO’s disregard for health and the environment, while others defend the company’s economic value in Hayden. There are key differences in Hayden though. For one, the smelter is still in operation today, and the threat of air pollution is still relevant. Another important distinction in Hayden is that the town isn’t technically on the National Priority List for Superfund sites. Instead, it has been classified as a Superfund alternative approach, which according to the EPA, “uses the same investigation and cleanup process and standards that are used for all Superfund sites.” Basically, when a potentially responsible party, in this case ASARCO, presents a plan for cleanup that the EPA deems acceptable, they allow the private company to handle operations with state and national oversight. Due to copper’s importance to the state’s economy, the state of Arizona worked hard to ensure Hayden avoided the stigma of being officially listed as a Superfund. However, no one worked harder than ASARCO to avoid the designation.

Over the years they have maintained that pollution is well under dangerous levels, even in the face of serious litigation brought on by fed-up Hayden residents in 2008. Reforms include installing new equipment with emission-reducing technology and covering contaminated soil. However, residents complained that the thin layer of gravel laid down by ASARCO isn’t enough to mitigate the danger, especially when it rains, and the contaminated soil escapes from underneath.

In 2011 the EPA officially sanctioned ASARCO for violating the Clean Air Act by having as much as two to three times the federal limit of lead emissions on some days, but cleanup was still left to the company. With budget cuts to the EPA and the current administration’s general views towards the environment, it is uncertain if federal aid for the cleanup will ever arrive in Hayden. Many have left as evidenced by the boarded-up buildings that line Main Street, but some claim to be too poor to relocate. Even the 10,000 dollars that residents won in the lawsuit against ASARCO is not enough to help people escape. For some, it feels as if they are trapped watching Hayden become a ghost town.

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