By Ana Campoy – Wall Street Journal
EL PASOâ€”After fighting for years to close a pollution-belching copper smelter, residents of this border city are now wrestling with what to do with the plant, which closed permanently last year.
At meetings convened by the city this month, local residents have been outlining hopes for everything from a white-water-rafting park to an observation deck atop the smelter’s 800-foot tall smokestack.
But a limited cleanup budget, and the heavy toxins that contaminate the old smelter, are narrowing the options as the city prepares to seek developers for the 458-acre site near downtown.
Some people here say the plant, which sparked protests in Mexico over air pollution that drifted across the Rio Grande, should be bulldozed and its entrance barred.
“That is no man’s land,” said Mario Lorenzo Nevarez, a former smelter worker who attended one of the meetings.
The plant, which started operations in 1887, was part of American Smelting & Refining Co., known as Asarco. Controlled by the Guggenheim family for decades, it turned ore from Mexican and Southwest mines into copper ingots. Left behind is a moonscape of waste material known as slag.
Saddled by contamination claims, Asarco, now owned by Mexican mining conglomerate Grupo Mexico, filed for Chapter 11 protection in 2005. The company emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 by signing one of the largest environmental settlements in U.S. history: $1.79 billion to clean and restore more than 80 locations around the country.
But El Paso’s $52 million share isn’t enough, locals say.
“They passed the liability from the pollution to the public,” said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, a Democrat who represents the area around El Paso.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, parties to the settlement, say the designated cleanup plan and funding are adequate.
Left to reconcile the grand visions with the fixed amount of cleanup money is Roberto Puga, a plainspoken geologist from Orange County, Calif. entrusted with the site’s management by federal and state environmental agencies.
“You have to temper your expectations,” he said recently from his office at the Asarco plant.
He has told locals to cross homes, schools and hospitals off their wish lists because his budget doesn’t cover scrubbing the land to the level required by those options.
Mr. Puga estimates he has enough money to bury and pave over about 150,000 cubic yards of contaminated slag now sitting in a pile across 4.5 acres and to install a pumping system to prevent water laced with toxic metals from feeding into the nearby Rio Grande. Arsenic has been found in the groundwater under the smelter at concentrations more than 6,000 times the federal government’s maximum level for drinking water.
But it’s up to Mr. Puga to procure the additional several million dollars needed to dig arsenic out from under one of the site’s old processing facilities and to dispose of other nontoxic slag strewn around the plant.
He has a few fund-raising ideas, including allowing the crew of a ghost-hunting television show to monitor for paranormal activity at the smelter’s power house, a place said to be haunted by dead workers.
“That’s a $50,000 fee!” he estimated recently.
Another challenge is cleaning the plant’s reputation. Aside from discharging pollutants from smelting ores, Asarco at the plant burned hazardous waste from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a military chemical-weapons plant in Colorado, without alerting authorities.
Over the years, the government has fined Asarco for its offenses, but some say those efforts fell short.
Some critics also feel that not enough has been done to address pollution that crossed into Mexico. The EPA says it is discussing pollution from the smelter with Mexican authorities.
Mr. Puga has dispensed his practical views to those El Pasoans who want to keep the smelter’s iconic smokestack and convert it into a tourist attraction.
He is studying how much it would cost to maintain the iconic structure, which regularly sheds pieces of crumbling concrete, and whether it can withstand an earthquake.
“It will require a fair amount of maintenance,” he said matter of factly. “Who will bear that cost?”