Asarco smokestacks: Preservation group awaits structural safety analysis

By Chris Roberts \ EL PASO TIMES

  • Courtesy photo This artist's rendering shows what the Asarco smokestacks would look like if they were acquired by the University of Texas at El Paso. The stacks face demolition. But a group led by Robert Ardovino is trying to save them. A recent engineering analysis shows no evidence of structural problems to the tallest stack. (Courtesy of the Times)Former ASARCO Smelter Site Stacks.

Early results from an engineering analysis of the tallest Asarco smokestack show no evidence of structural problems, but the time to save the iconic structures is quickly running out.

“The report we are going to get back is incredibly favorable in terms of preservation,” said Robert Ardovino, who helped organize the “Save the Stacks Group.”

Ardovino was talking about a visual inspection of the stacks performed by Industrial Access, a Georgia-based company. An engineering analysis is expected in a little less than two weeks.

“There have been no findings of anything jumping out of anything unsafe,” said John Susong, the company’s chief executive officer. “The windscreen (the concrete outer shell) is in very good condition.”

Inspectors saw no significant cracks, exposed rebar or missing chunks of concrete on the tall stack, which rises 826 feet, Susong said.

The 600-foot stack has a crack running up its side, Susong said, but it’s not yet clear whether that poses a structural problem.

“We’d like to save them both, but if we can’t save the small one because of cost or something like that, we’d be happy to save the large stack,” said Geoffrey Wright, Save the Stacks Group president.

However, by Dec. 4, the group not only needs to show the stacks are structurally sound, it has to find an entity — public or private — to take financial responsibility for an initial retrofit, repair as well as long-term operation and maintenance.

Wright said early estimates indicate it would cost between $1 million and $2 million for retrofit and repair while operation and maintenance would require less than $50,000 annually, which is $2.5 million over 50 years.

A study commissioned by Asarco trustee Roberto Puga, who is in charge of cleaning up and selling the site, estimated the 50-year cost at about $14 million. Early support for saving the stacks dwindled after that figure was announced.

Puga did not want to comment on the future of the stacks, or the comments by the Save the Stacks Group, until he sees the final engineering report.

“That is the report that matters,” Puga said.

However, instead of waiting for the final engineering report, the Save the Stacks Group is working to quickly find an entity to adopt the stacks, and they have discussed the possibility of the city or the University of Texas at El Paso taking over.

El Paso Mayor John Cook said he would have to see more hard data before deciding whether he would support using taxpayer dollars for the project.

“I committed to the group that I would bring it to City Council and see if they wanted to make that ongoing commitment,” Cook said.

The deadline is quickly approaching.

Puga had originally set a stack demolition date for earlier this year. In late 2011, he agreed to a year delay, and more recently, extended the deadline by another month.

Avoiding demolition will not be easy.

An agreement between Puga and Save the Stacks requires a signed engineering report stating the stacks and their foundations are structurally able to withstand wind and seismic events based on the most recent data and standards.

Wright said the group is performing soil tests on the foundations. He believes they are set on rock, which would add to their stability.

Other requirements include the cost estimates for retrofit and repair, insurance and ongoing operation and maintenance. Those estimates are to be done by companies currently performing that type of work.

As mentioned, Save the Stacks will have to find an entity with the financial means to assume long-term responsibility for the stacks. The entity also will have to indemnify the trust, its beneficiaries, any future buyer and all adjacent landowners from adverse health effects and the results of “physical failure of either stack up to and including a collapse.”

“If the above minimal requirements are not met to the Trust’s satisfaction, the Trust will move forward with plans to demolish the stacks,” the agreement states.

It specifically cites codes and standards set by the American Concrete Institute, the International Building Code and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Ardovino, with Save the Stacks, said the original plan should have included a preservation option.

“He (Puga) hasn’t looked at whether the stacks add or subtract to the value of the site he has to sell,” Ardovino said. “If we had started with that conversation, imagine where we would be now.”

Chris Roberts may be reached at; 546-6136.