(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Let's return now to our series Poisoned Places. This morning it takes us to the town Hayden, Arizona. There's a copper smelter there, and the Environmental Protection Agency says that copper smelter has been continuously emitting illegal amounts of toxins for the last six years. They include lead, arsenic and eight other dangerous toxins. The EPA's finding means the facility's owner, Asarco, could face millions of dollars in fines and could be forced to install expensive pollution controls. The agency disclosed its action last week to NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, which were jointly investigating toxic air pollution in the town. NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: For the last century, copper has been processed in the smelter in Hayden, Arizona, a largely Hispanic town of 900, with a playground in the shadow of the plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN LAUGHING AND PLAYING)

BERKES: This is sound from video shot last month by the Center for Public Integrity. And the camera pans skyward, from three boys pushing and shoving at the top of a playground slide, to the smokestack rising above them.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS SHOUTING)

BERKES: Fifty-six-year-old Manny Armenta represents union workers at the Asarco smelter and grew up in Hayden.

MANNY ARMENTA: I remember clouds of blue smoke coming down into the playgrounds in the community and coughing and your eyes burning

BERKES: Nellie Acton has lived a half century on the same street in town...

NELLIE ACTON: There were times that we would wake up and we'd see little black dots all over everything. My mom would call them Asarco freckles.

BERKES: And Betty Amparano has two kids who've tested positive for excessive levels of lead.

BETTY AMPARANO: As a matter of fact we were always comparing to see who had more lines on their nails. And at that time, you know, we didn't even know that it could've been cause of lead. We had no idea. You know, we used to play little games, let's see who's got more lines today, you know.

BERKES: Asarco declined a request for an interview for this story but provided a statement saying its emissions are within legal limits. It's not responsible for any health problems in town and it will vigorously challenge EPA's findings, which essentially say Asarco persistently violates pollution standards.

The company has support from Arizona regulators, who enforce the federal Clean Air Act in the state.

HENRY DARWIN: I think it's a clear attempt by EPA to make it seem as if the state has done nothing.

BERKES: Henry Darwin of Arizona's Department of Environmental Quality says Asarco meets pollution standards and doesn't deserve EPA's attempt cut pollution even more.

DARWIN: They are not making an allegation that they have actually emitted pollution beyond those thresholds, just that they have a potential to. And at this point we have no reason to believe that they have crossed that threshold.

BERKES: Darwin dismisses EPA's action as a paperwork violation. But EPA told the state of Arizona last week, that its monitors in Hayden detected lead at two to three times the federal threshold on some days this year. Three years ago, EPA found so much lead and arsenic in the soil that it ordered Asarco to dig up yards around nearly 300 homes. Jared Blumenfeld is the agency's regional administrator.

JARED BLUMENFELD: Issues of lead exposure we take very seriously. There is no simple paperwork violation. This is a question of whether a large facility that smelts copper has the controls necessary to deal with lead emissions.

BERKES: The agency hopes the company will comply voluntarily and install new pollution controls. A separate process could force the company to cut those excessive lead emissions. But that could take five years, which doesn't encourage people in Hayden. Photographer Jill Corona lived there until a few years ago, but her family remains.

JILL CORONA: To the residents that are living there now, it's not like it's a water faucet that gets shut off and that's it. It's the end of it. You're done. It's not that simple. I just want for someone to tell me that Hayden is a safe place to live. And I don't want it to wait more than five years from now, or even a year from now, to hear that.

BERKES: Corona's mother Betty Amparano and 200 others sued over alleged health effects a decade ago. A settlement with a bankrupt Asarco in 2005 netted enough money to pay some medical bills, but not enough for a fresh start and fresh air - away from the copper smelter in Hayden, Arizona. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And at npr.org, we have details of an extensive investigation into toxic air pollution in Hayden reported with the Center for Public Integrity.

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