Murray Smelter: The Purpose of the Superfund Program

State, local, and EPA officials worked together in Murray, Utah - a suburb of Salt Lake City - to clean up a lead smelter that had received the highest ever hazard rating from the EPA.

The Murray Smelter Superfund demonstrates the potential of the ambitious Superfund program and stands as a testament to its limitations. Modern industry has had staggering destructive impacts across the West. Clean-up processes have been complicated and often delayed. There are flaws in the Superfund program, but ultimately it was created for a good purpose. It marked an era when Americans started to be conscious of the impacts that they were having on the environment and strove to remediate the damage they had done.

Opened in 1902 and operated by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), the Murray Smelter grew to become the nation’s largest supplier of lead. As early as 1907, nearby farmers began to complain of the effect that lead and arsenic released into the air were having on livestock and crops. A national court case forced ASARCO to invest in new towering smokestacks that would reduce the effects of the pollution. The smelter operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, superheating lead ore and separating it from other material while also releasing copious amounts of toxic material into the air and water. Following the end of WWII, the demand for lead declined and the Murray Smelter closed in 1949, leaving behind the iconic smokestacks and 142 deserted acres of polluted property. In 1994 when the EPA evaluated the site for consideration on the Superfund list, it received the highest ever hazard rating ever given in agency’s history, at 86.6. By comparison, the average hazard rating for the other Superfund sites in this tour is only 45.3. The hazard rating is used “to assess the relative potential of sites to pose a threat to human health or the environment.” The rating that the Murray Smelter received was alarming, especially when considering the town’s high school was just across the street.

And yet, the city of Murray refused to be defined by its environmental problem. City, state, and EPA officials immediately began work together on cleanup operations. The smokestacks that were caked in toxic lead and asbestos were demolished in 2000, and thousands of tons of contaminated soil have since been removed. ASARCO has contributed to the cleanup as well, providing funding and installing groundwater monitoring stations. By 2002, the site was deemed clean enough for commercial development, and now is home to a massive Intermountain Healthcare Medical Center, Costco, and the local public transportation Frontrunner station. The EPA’s site manager commented, “The ability to work and problem solve with so many different groups made the cleanup process exciting.” The successful collaboration turned one of the most potentially dangerous toxic sites in America into a thriving commercial area.

The Murray Smelter site shows the potential that the Superfund program has; however, it also shows that the clean-up process can be highly selective. In the other locations featured in Superfund Me: Stories of Environmental Tragedies in the West, as well as many others across the nation, groups of people are neglected because of the lack of economic opportunities in their cities. The Navajo and the Coeur d’Alene tribes are ignored as the land and water they have relied on for generations is poisoned. The cries for help from the people of Monticello, Silverton, and Libby are discarded because their communities are so small. The immigrant miners of Butte were forced to move as their homes were consumed by a giant pit, and just as the people of Hayden today face economic and environmental pressures that threaten to create a new ghost town. The attention and effort that we give to clean the massive messes we have made should not be based on the economic potential of that area. We should learn from those past mistakes to ensure a healthy relationship between man and the environment in the future. We owe it to everyone and everything that considers the West its home.

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The site of the smelter currently consists of an Intermountain Medical Center, Costco, and the Murray Central UTA Station.