"Such Infinite Distances": Visualizing Embedded Narratives in the Tacoma Smelter Plume
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For nearly 100 years, the Asarco copper smelter in Ruston, Washington operated on the shore of Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, refining ore with high concentrations of arsenic. The smelter’s 562-foot smokestack — the tallest of its kind at the time — was intended to disperse the smelter’s arsenic- and lead-laden emissions across “such infinite distances” as to be rendered harmless, as claimed by Asarco’s director of agricultural research in 1951. In reality, the smokestack’s height dramatically extended the reach of its toxic emissions, creating a 1,000-square-mile region of contaminated topsoil in the South Puget Sound. Three decades after the notorious smokestack was demolished, the Washington State Department of Ecology continues to excavate and replace the most toxic soils in parks, schools, and residential yards within the Tacoma Smelter Plume. This thesis examines the legacy of the Asarco Tacoma Smelter from a landscape narrative perspective, exploring the power of representation to inscribe toxicity into the landscape. The resulting book—a series of Anthropocenic landscape paintings—integrates landscape architectural theory, contemporary digital tools, and culturally entrenched pictorial conventions to communicate the complex narratives that shape our contemporary landscape. By eschewing conventional disciplinary boundaries between scientific research, historical inquiry, art and design, this book tells a diffuse story of industrial heritage through the common language of landscape to set the stage for a more resilient environmental ethic.