EPA cleanup of Asarco site is sought

By Chris Roberts \ EL PASO TIMES

Former Asarco employees — citing inadequate testing for contaminants and other concerns — called Monday for the Environmental Protection Agency to take over the cleanup of the century-old smelter site on El Paso’s West Side.

“The smelter incinerated military hazardous waste and there were decades of burials that were unregulated and remain on site,” said Verónica Carbajal, a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney who is representing the workers. “There are no plans to test for the contaminants that are most damaging to our community.”

The former employees, joined by El Paso Regional Sierra Club members, produced documents they said show that radioactive material and PCBs, a toxic compound, likely were burned or buried at the site. That requires a more comprehensive testing and cleanup plan, which likely will cost more than the $52 million now available, they said. Former employees say those who worked at the plant in the 1990s, when Asarco illegally incinerated hazardous waste, are suffering from a range of serious illnesses at relatively young ages.

Roberto Puga, who is in charge of the cleanup, said his group, Project Navigator, has been responsive to the former employees, even changing the work plan based on information they provided.

“If they have new information we’re not aware of, we will look at it and incorporate it into our plan as appropriate,” Puga said.

But the former employees said Project Navigator failed to identify at least six “unlined, unregulated landfills that exist on Asarco property.” One of those landfills is located east of Interstate 10 in an area planned for residential development, said Carlos Rodriguez, who worked at the smelter from 1972 until it closed in 1999.

The landfills were identified during interviews with about 30 former employees conducted during the past two months, Rodriguez said. Motors, transformers, capacitors and cooling oils were among the items buried in the eastern landfill that might contain PCBs, Rodriguez said.

That area will be completely cleaned up, Puga said, including excavating contaminated soil and buried items, which will be relocated into high-tech landfills on the main smelter site. Puga said another toxic chemical called hydrazine had been identified by the former employees and was now part of the work plan.

“We have sampled in every one of the locations they pointed out to us,” Puga said. “We have followed through on everything we have promised them.”

But there is no documentation in many cases, Carbajal said. In a 1994 consent decree, provided by the former employees, Asarco is taken to task for not keeping adequate documentation of its handling of PCBs. An inspection report on Encycle, a Corpus Christi-based company that was sending waste to Asarco’s smelters in El Paso and Helena, Mont., noted the shipment of large quantities of material containing PCBs.

“We will be testing for PCBs where it’s appropriate,” Puga said.

Another document indicates Encycle also was receiving material containing small amounts of uranium and thorium from a mining company named Molycorp and shipping it to the Asarco smelters.

“We know radioactive materials were burned here,” said Bill Addington, a Sierra Club executive committee member. “It starts out at low levels and it keeps piling up.”

Puga said his company found no information indicating the presence of radioactive material.

That provides little relief to the former employees who say the cleanup is proceeding too quickly and without vital information about toxic materials that could end up polluting the surrounding community.

“We have not been able to get a complete list of the wastes that went through there,” Rodriguez said. “After the cleanup, it will be too late.”

Chris Roberts may be reached at chrisr@elpasotimes.com; 546-6136.

Information

  • Former Asarco workers with information about the activities at the site can contact Verónica Carbajal with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid at 585-5107.