Ground zero

TONYA BALES was out with the hose, sprinkling her lawn with a mixture of chemical growth booster. What could it hurt? "What's a few more chemicals?" she says on the sidewalk to her small rental home on Winnifred Street in Ruston, the little town wedged between Tacoma and Point Defiance Park.

A wide, thriving planter strip divides the street of neat homes. They line a rise above the former ASARCO copper smelter site on Commencement Bay, a lunarlike gulch that is now a $90 million Superfund cleanup site. For most of a century, the smelter leaked chemicals into the sky. Lead and arsenic rained on Ruston and rode the winds north.

Two years ago, elevated levels of fallout from the plume were found on Vashon and Murray islands. Last week, the state said contamination has now been found as distant as West Seattle.

The Department of Ecology says it's not a Seattle health emergency. On the other hand, it's best if you take your shoes off at the door, wash your hands frequently, mop the floors often, and don't let the kids get into the dirt.

Otherwise, you're safe.

"Where does that leave us?" asks Bales.

In West Seattle, the hazardous- chemical readings, in scientific math, were 80 parts per million. That's four times the state's standard level for safety.

In Ruston, ground zero, the readings are 3,000 per million.

That's a little higher.

"My boy has asthma. My husband has asthma. I have asthma. None of us had asthma six years ago when we moved in," says Bales, 28.

"You don't know if it has anything to do with the smelter," she says. "Maybe it's just the house or something. We'd like to leave, but the rent is only $550 a month.

"I didn't know you weren't supposed to wear your shoes inside. That's what they're telling Seattle?"

Down at the corner, inside Don's Ruston Market, Don is sitting at a table across from the little store's soda fountain.

He's real sorry to hear that Ruston may have infected Seattle.

"Hey, you from Seattle?" asks Don. He gestures toward the window, which looks onto North 51st Street, winding down to the smelter moonscape—and eventually to the freeway.

"You just go down this road here and you'll be home soon."

He puts his head down and resumes reading his paper, sitting silently. Then he looks up and laughs—a little.

Don doesn't give his last name because "all my neighbors know who I am. For the people of Seattle, it doesn't matter."

Over behind the store counter, a woman says, "Seattle missed the boat again. This is an old story."

The smelter opened in the 1890s and was closed in 1985. The lead and arsenic have been here for generations, the woman says. It's something you learn to live with and dismiss.

"Yeah, when I heard you shouldn't eat more than a quart of dirt a day," Don pipes up, "I stopped eating dirt."

He didn't attend the community meeting the other day at the ASARCO Information Center inside the old Ruston school, overlooking the denuded smelter basin. Now just a mill framework surrounded by plastic-covered hills of treated dirt, the site cleanup project stalled last year when ASARCO ran low on money.

At the meeting, three dozen residents heard more bad news from the Environmental Protection Agency: ASARCO's Superfund cleanup may never be completed, and the U.S. could end up inheriting the unusable waterfront property and its liabilities.

The company settled a class-action lawsuit with local residents in 1995 but is today teetering on bankruptcy. Homeowners from Tacoma to Seattle will now have to do their own dirt- removal cleanup.

Oh, well, says Don, "Can't live in a free country if everything's free, my dad used to say.

"Been here 20 years. My kids grew up here. They tried but couldn't eat a quart a day, either.

"I mean, what's everyone upset about?"

In her front yard, Tonya Bales says she had inspectors over to check the home's water and aged pipes for chemicals. Her asthmatic son, 5, has been tested for contaminants.

"I was being cautious," Bales says. "But the smelter was two blocks away. You have to wonder why nothing grows there."

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