From the Tacoma Community History Project: A History of the Tacoma Smelter & Its Workers

Interview and Project By Angela Cookson; blog post written by Erika Wigren.

In this project from the Tacoma Community History collection, UW Tacoma alumni Angela Cookson interviews Chuck O’Donahue and Curtis Dungey. Both O’Donahue and Dungey worked for the company ASARCO, who ran Tacoma’s copper smelter plant for almost 100 years.

Chuck O’Donahue began working for ASARCO in 1963 and in 1965 he became the Union Leader for Smelters Workers Local 25.

Smelter Plant in Tacoma, WA
Curtis Dungey graduated from the University of Washington in 1973 with a Bachelors in Environmental Science. The start of his career with ASARCO, the company who operated the copper smelter plant in Tacoma, WA began in 1975.
The three main reasons the plant closed, Dungey explained, were because of the recession, foreign competition, and environmental issues due to the sulfur dioxide.
Dungey stated that “at that time there were numerous problems going on at the Tacoma plant, mostly with respect to occupational exposure to arsenic in the facility. Also, there were issues related to sulfur dioxide in the ambient — outside the environment around the plant — [he] was asked to be on site as the resident environmental specialist/scientist.”
With work being done at the time by the Environmental Protection Agency and Greenpeace, the plant received a lot of backlash and worry because of its arsenic emissions harm on both the environment and the workers in the plant.

O’Donahue explained that the situation scared a lot of the workers.

“The hearings began, and the heartaches for the smelter workers really started then because of the stories being told: one-in-ten-thousand people on the outside were going to die, and one-in-one thousand people on the inside were going to die. We really had some tough times with a lot of people,” O’Donahue stated.
After the closure of the plant in 1985, Dungey had worked to assist with the clean up issues and the demolition of the plant.
A closer view of the plant in Tacoma.

O’Donahue stated that even after the plant closed, workers weren’t being followed up with in regard to their related health issues.

“It’s hard to really realize that they can sit down as management and say that there was no health effects on any of the smelter workers, when in December [1992] we had thirteen funerals alone…a lot of them were cancer funerals. That’s not to say that the cancer they died from was that caused by arsenic. The point was, that of the thirteen, eight of them were cancer victims. …but [at the time] nobody [had] done a follow up or study of any smelter workers since the closure.”

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, “for almost 100 years, the ASARCO Company operated a copper smelter in Tacoma. Air pollution from the smelter settled on the surface soil of more than 1,000 square miles of the Puget Sound basin.”

To this day, arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals are still in the soil as a result of this pollution.

To read more about this project and the interviews with Chuck O’Donahue and Curtis Dungey view the full project History of the Tacoma Smelter and Its Workers.



The Tacoma Community History Project is a growing oral history collection. The projects are created by UW Tacoma students under the supervision of Professor Michael K. Honey and in partnership with the UWT Library. Click to learn more about the Tacoma Community History Project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *