Report: ASARCO/Encycle plant scene of multiple, unreported violations

Rick Spruill – Caller Times

CORPUS CHRISTI — An insider’s take on the operations of the now defunct ASARCO/Encycle plant on Up River Road has nearby residents questioning demolition plans.

The 1994 report, written by a former Encycle Texas Inc. employee, recently was made public on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.

The report alleges the company operated outside its environmental permits and committed several workplace safety violations related to hazardous waste storage during five years, beginning in 1989.

The plant has been vacant since 2005 and is slated for demolition soon. Residents of nearby neighborhood Dona Park say the report raises the possibility of unknown chemicals at the site. They want the demolition canceled or at least postponed until more environmental testing can be done.

But the EPA and a U.S. bankruptcy trustee in charge of the case say that is unlikely to happen.

The report’s author, David Cahill, said employees were directed to dump unrecycled hazardous wastes into tanks that were certified as recycled to customers and environmental agencies.

The company also shipped containers filled with dangerous solid wastes to ASARCO’s plant in El Paso for smelting, according to the report. Cahill, whose last known address was in Rockport, could not be reached for comment.

The Encycle Texas plant opened in 1989 on the grounds of the former zinc smelter operated by ASARCO from 1942 to 1985.

Encycle opened as a liquid industrial waste recycling plant. The venture was not profitable, Cahill said in the report, forcing the plant to begin recycling solid wastes containing toxins such as cyanide, lead and cadmium.

Encycle and ASARCO both sought bankruptcy protection in 2005. The EPA later ordered ASARCO to pay more than $1.7 billion to clean as many as 80 sites.

Since then, U.S. Bankruptcy Court judges have allocated more than $60 million for the demolition and cleanup of the company’s plants in Corpus Christi and El Paso and Amarillo.

In December, a judge approved a $3.6 million contract with Austin-based Energy Renewal Partners to demolish 50 buildings, silos and storage tanks at the Corpus Christi site.

Officials from both the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said demolition will proceed despite the claims made in the Cahill report. Energy Renewal Partners officials could not be reached.

Encycle bankruptcy trustee Mike Boudloche said demolition could be under way as early as this week.

Tammy Foster, a lifelong Dona Park, resident and member of local environmental grass-roots organization Citizens for Environmental Justice, said a buyout is the only viable option. Most families cannot afford to move away without first selling their homes, a process made difficult by past environmental studies indicating the land is contaminated.

“We want them to stop the demo until they can figure out a way to do it safely, and the only safe way is to buy Dona Park out,” Foster said.

She said more than 40 residents are planning to post signs in their yards and wrap hazard tape around trees and fences in protest of the demolition.

The neighborhood, south of Up River Road about 1,000 feet from the plant, has been the subject of several environmental studies and soil cleanup projects conducted by the state and ASARCO/Encycle since 1994.

The state environmental commission currently is testing soil samples taken from almost 60 Dona Park properties as part of the second phase of a project to determine the environmental impact of the plant.

After reading Cahill’s report, Foster fears the plant holds secrets yet to be uncovered.

“A lot of the report says things that were never revealed to the neighborhood,” she said.

In El Paso, Cahill’s report sent a shock wave through the Ex-ASARCO Worker Group, a coalition of former employees who claim the company did not provide them with honest medical evaluations after a mass layoff in 1999.

“The Cahill report was a godsend,” said Carlos Rodriguez, one of ASARCO’s El Paso employees who said he was exposed to toxic chemicals received from Encycle during the 1990s.

Rodriguez said the group last year requested information under the federal Freedom of Information Act to learn more about the EPA’s dealings with ASARCO.

Cahill’s 33-page report was tucked inside the 2,000 pages received in response. The EPA recently posted the documents on its website.

The report has unified Dona Park residents with those in El Paso in a common cause, said Suzie Canales, Citizens for Environmental Justice executive director.

“This is now a tale of two cities,” she said. “We are united in the fight against ASARCO/Encycle.”