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Arsenic and old Salt Lake is a cautionary tale

Published June 10, 2007 1:38 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Someone proposes that the byproduct of human industry is responsible for environmental degradation. The corporations furiously respond, hiring batteries of attorneys, sponsoring scientific studies, publishing articles in the popular press. They finally win the argument by showing that the environmental changes are beneficial.

In the meantime, 95 percent of the bees die. Agricultural production plummets. Disaster looms.

A story ripped from this morning's headlines? No. Try Murray, Utah, at the beginning of the past century.

In what may be the first successful environmental lawsuit, Utah farmer Dave McCleary claimed the Highland Boy Smelter's output was ruining his crops and sickening his animals.

In 1904, the court found in his favor.

No wonder. The smelters were processing 6,000 tons of ore a day and spewing a million tons of sulfur dioxide into the air every year, not to mention lead and arsenic.

The area around modern Murray and Midvale, initially farmland, became a smelting center with the railroad and the discovery of valuable ore in Park City, Tintic and Bingham. By 1880, 34 smelters clustered there. Mergers and acquisitions reduced that number to six by 1906, but their larger size increased the total output exponentially.

Emboldened by McCleary's example, a group of farmers sued all the smelters and won in 1906. The courts mandated the installation of pollution control devices. A couple claimed compliance was too costly and closed down.

The remainder installed "baghouse" pollution systems in their stacks: canvas filters that removed quantities of arsenic and lead (but let the smokeless sulfur dioxide through).

Stung by the verdicts and looking at perpetual payouts, the smelter owners went on the offensive. They hired teams of lawyers and established "test farms" to prove their case.

Their case, it turned out, was simple. The farmers were either stupid or lazy. The land was fine; the fault lay with those who didn't know how to farm effectively or were looking for an easy buck.

Good industrial jobs, they said, were being lost due to nuisance lawsuits. It was dubbed "smoke farming."

The smelter owners, mostly non-Mormons, also played the religion card. The smelter-friendly Salt Lake Tribune insinuated that Mormon farmers, with back-door approval of church officials, were scamming the system.

Subsequent lawsuits became mired in "scientific" claims put forward by the aggrieved polluters. The farmers hired their own expert from Stanford University and the cases drowned in scientific data.

But it turned out there was a silver lining to the court's earlier order for pollution controls. The smelters extracted quantities of commercially valuable lead and arsenic. Some established chemical subsidiaries.

Then in a double stroke of good fortune, much of the pollutants removed from smokestacks were found to be effective ingredients in pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. The Midvale smelter took out ads in the Utah Farmer, boasting of their chemical agricultural products containing calcium arsenate, arsenate of lead, sodium arsenate and plain old arsenic. Utah farmers happily doused their fruit trees and crops. By 1925, the Salt Lake smelters were the biggest purveyors of arsenical farm products in the nation.

A few Chicken Littles worried about food bathed in chemicals. They were ignored. After all, there was no question that a good dose of lead arsenate knocked the six-legged vermin silly. And besides, chemicals were "scientific."

Then, in a twist of fate too ironic to be fabricated, in 1938 the State Bee Association found to its horror that 95 percent of the hives on the Wasatch were empty. It demanded an investigation into the disappearance the Beehive State's bees.

A trail of arsenic led away from the tiny corpses.

In 1945 it was established that farming chemicals had done in the bees. Perhaps coincidentally, in 1947, the last smelter in the valley shut down, leaving a tall smokestack and hundreds of acres polluted with lead and arsenic that would barely escape becoming a Superfund site and cost taxpayers millions to clean up.

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* PAT BAGLEY is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. For more information, look up Michael A. Church's Utah Historic Quarterly, Summer 2003, article, "Smoke Farming: Smelting and Agricultural

Reform in Utah, 1900-1945."