Earth Day 2021: Liver cancer didn't kill me — environmental pollution did

·6 min read

Editor’s note: Kay Treakle wrote this column in April 2020. She died of liver cancer on June 10, at the age of 65.

By the time this column is published, I will no longer be alive.

I have been fighting terminal liver cancer since it was discovered in May 2018. This disease has two major causes, hepatitis infection, or cirrhosis from alcohol consumption. I have neither. But when I was diagnosed, I was too afraid to think about where the 7-inch tumor on my liver came from. I just wanted it out of my body. It wasn’t an option.

When I got beyond the terror of having stage 4 cancer, I started wondering where it came from. I found that long-term exposure to arsenic is one of the risk factors for developing liver cancer. Sadly, I had 18 years of daily exposure to arsenic, part of the toxic mix of pollutants discharged into the air from the Asarco Co. copper smelter, whose smoke stack was located less than a mile from my house in Tacoma’s North End in Washington state.

The environmental underdog

Tacoma is a working-class community, with a certain scrappy pragmatism. Many people worked at the smelter or, like my father, worked on the Tideflats, which was both a port and an industrial zone where dirty facilities routinely dumped wastes into the air and the waters of Commencement Bay.

Asarco Co. copper smelter in 1982 in Tacoma, Washington.
Asarco Co. copper smelter in 1982 in Tacoma, Washington.

Tacoma had a reputation for smelling bad and being run by crooks who provided a haven for toxic industries. The town was not known for poisoned citizens fighting back. Was it apathy? Fear of losing jobs? Disinterest or complicity on the part of civic leaders? I don’t know. But for nearly 100 years, Tacoma allowed Asarco to profit at the expense of citizens’ health, leaving behind some of the worst pollution in the country.

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Eventually, Asarco was identified as the source of contamination from arsenic and lead over 1,000 square miles around the Puget Sound region. In 1953, the plant released an estimated 630 tons of arsenic into the air. My house was practically at ground zero.

My dad always rooted for the underdog — in his case, the working class — in frequent political arguments with his friends. This gave me an internal radar focused on responsibility and accountability. The power of the civil rights movement, and the student protests against the war in Vietnam, strengthened my identity with the underdog. In high school, I participated in the first Earth Day — April 22, 1970 — and saw our responsibility to protect the environment that sustains us.

My lifelong commitment for environmental protection is rooted in the polluted landscape I grew up in. My sense of outrage, activism and obsession with corporate and government accountability come from that same set of roots.

My need to ask questions comes from that formative experience with Asarco: Why can’t we have jobs and environmental protection at the same time? Why are corporate profits more important than public health? Why aren’t polluters prosecuted for the crimes of killing citizens with toxic chemicals that have taken decades upon decades to regulate? Probably because companies that threaten to shut down or move abroad get the power to tilt the political and legal systems to benefit themselves.

Living with the mess polluters make

Asarco polluted my neighborhood because it would not pay to install technology to mitigate the damage. The Tacoma smelter closed in 1985, but the stack just sat there, looming for years over a polluted superfund site.

Eventually, Asarco sold its assets to a company in Mexico and filed for bankruptcy protection.

After a legal battle, the company had to pay a settlement fee of $1.79 billion — but not just to cover Tacoma’s pollution. The settlement included cleanup at hazardous waste sites in 19 states.

Asarco got a bargain. My neighborhood got cleaned up, but the company never had to pay for any damages to people's health. Who knows how many cancer deaths could have been prevented if the company had paid, upfront, to minimize pollution?

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Fifty-one years after the first Earth Day, people across the planet are still dying from pollution. Corrupt companies bribe, threaten and seduce governments into lax enforcement of conservation efforts. The threat of layoffs and reduction of tax revenue can be used to challenge environmental regulations. And if a pollution fine is assessed, it becomes simply a cost of doing business. So they continue to dump their pollution on us, rather than pay to manage it. Why is that still OK?

Kay Treakle in Tacoma, Washington, in August 2015.
Kay Treakle in Tacoma, Washington, in August 2015.

One of the lessons from Earth Day is that you can build citizen muscle to challenge the status quo. While I got mad listening to my dad and his friends argue, I later found that anger should be followed by organized action to change conditions, laws and values, and to tilt the playing field toward lasting change. Individuals do have agency. People working together do have power. Now, after decades of investment in cleanup, there is life in Commencement Bay that I never saw growing up: sea stars, anemones, rockfish, even orca whales.

So yeah, I grew up in a polluted neighborhood where I was being poisoned. But I’ve also seen change happen. And despite how maddening it is that some polluters still get subsidized, that pollution fines are not tough enough, there is ongoing public support for protecting our health, our air, water, land and wildlife. We just have to get louder, more impatient and more insistent that there is only one acceptable direction. Forward. Making change takes generations. Time to dust off that lesson and get to work.

Kay Treakle grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and was the first administrative director of Greenpeace USA in 1979. She managed environmental grants for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and in 2005 Kay moved back to Tacoma and became executive director of The Harder Foundation, funding groups that protect natural resources on public lands in the Northwest. She retired from Harder in 2019, when her liver cancer reached a point where she could no longer work.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Earth Day 2021: Environmental pollution caused my terminal cancer

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