Smelter Smoke in North America

The Politics of Transborder Pollution

John D. Wirth

Air pollution challenges nations sharing common borders to balance economic needs with protecting citizens and the environment across jurisdictions. By examining landmark cases on the two borders, John Wirth shows how environmental diplomacy, citizen action at the grassroots level, and the role of science, industry, and the law converged, bringing Canada, the United States, and Mexico to the threshold of today's continental approaches to pollutant pathways.

Wirth first examines the famous Trail smelter conflict of 1927-1941. This precedent-setting case, which pitted U.S. farmers against the Canadian smelter, resulted in the doctrine that in cases of transborder damage, the polluter must pay. Although the farmers were modestly compensated and the British Columbia-based smelter cooperated to control pollution, Wirth reveals the real significance of the decision: U.S. industries shared with the Canadians a common interest to resolve the case in a manner that would allow them to continue to pollute freely across international borders with minimal regulation.

“John Wirth’s Smelter Smoke in North America is one of the most important contributions to environmental history in the past decade. . . . It brilliantly succeeds on a number of levels. The research in scientific reports, corporate records, and interviews is staggering; more important, Wirth analyzes these documents in a manner accessible to specialists and nonspecialists alike.

—Canadian Journal of History

“Wirth uses two focused, lucid, and engaging case histories to lead readers onto a challenging intellectual and policy frontier. A first-rate historian and an experienced policy consultant, he provides deep insights and guidance into the politics and technology of global environmental pollution. This major contribution deserves a wide audience.”

—Thomas P. Hughes, author of Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society

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Wirth then turns to the Gray Triangle confrontations of the 1980s, in which the new instruments of the Clean Air Act and cooperative policies developed by the Mexican and U.S. governments established an entirely new climate for citizen action, resulting in the closing of an American smelter in Arizona and the imposition of stricter standards on two Mexican smelters in Sonora. Although the Trail precedent favored industry, the Gray Triangle resolution signaled that the needs of industry and the public interest were now in better balance.

Drawing on extensive interviews and previously untapped archives, Smelter Smoke in North America provides new analysis of the development of a North American institutional response to continental air pollution. It chronicles how industry developed a continental perspective in a shared regional space, the mineralized West, and how successful efforts of governments and citizens to protect the environment evolved.

About the Author

John D. Wirth was Gildred Professor of Latin American Studies in the department of history at Stanford University. Founder and president of the North American Institute, he was appointed by the White House in 1994 to serve as a U.S. member on the Joint Public Advisory Committee of the NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation. He was a contributing editor to Environmental Management on North America's Borders.

Additional Titles in the Development of Western Resources Series