EPA chief Lisa Jackson hears impact of pollution on city’s poor

Chris Roberts – El Paso Times

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is serious about helping residents of low-income neighborhoods damaged by industrial pollution, it will take over the Asarco cleanup, a former smelter employee told the agency chief on Thursday.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson spent an hour listening to residents of El Paso, Vinton, Westway, Sunland Park and other locations who spoke of health problems they believe are related to pollution from a steel plant, a landfill, chemical plants, dairies and Asarco, the shuttered smelter.

Health problems discussed ranged from allergic reactions and asthma to multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

Jackson was on a two-day Texas visit to collect information on health and environmental conditions, with a focus on minority and low-income populations that sometimes bear disproportionate burdens of industrial pollution. Her staff took written testimony, documentation and other information during the meeting, attended by about 150 people, at the El Paso Community College Northwest Campus.

El Paso “has stood up over a very short time and demanded clean air and clean water and has had some victories,” Jackson said. Specifically, she mentioned efforts to close the Asarco smelter and binational efforts to improve air quality on the border.

But smaller, poorer communities often must balance the need for economic support with environmental risks.

“A lot of these smaller cities that have environmental concerns have no resources,” said Ellen Smythe, the city of El Paso’s Environmental Services Department director. “The people don’t have a voice because everything is so technical and so legal. You have to have an attorney and you have to have an engineer.”

Business-friendly policies should not be at “the expense of those that are most vulnerable,” Jackson said.

“There is a false choice between business and the environment,” Jackson said. “It angers me greatly (when someone says), ‘Would you like your kid to have food to eat or clean air: pick.’ “

Most of the pollution sources mentioned during the meeting have existed for years.

JosĂ© Alfredo GarcĂ­a, a Sunland Park resident, said the Camino Real Landfill was a repository for medical waste and has contaminated air and water. He said pollution is causing “allergies and sickness.”

“I want to ask you to please help us,” GarcĂ­a said to Jackson in Spanish.

The medical waste was incinerated more than 20 years ago, said George Wayne, a spokes man for the company that owns the landfill. He said it complies with all state and federal regulations and recently had a long-term permit renewed.

“I have no knowledge of anything that would be cause and effect (regarding health problems) for our facility,” Wayne said in a telephone interview.

Operators of a steel plant in Vinton owned by ArcelorMittal have negotiated to reduce pollutants, said Eddie Chew, who is with Border Interfaith, a community organization, but he said problems remain.

Particulate matter and other air pollutants are near their maximum levels, he said, and they affect a small Hispanic community where about 35 percent of the families fall below the poverty line. Others who testified said too many children in the area suffer from breathing problems and allergies.

In an e-mail, ArcelorMittal spokeswoman Katie Patterson said the company has invested more than $4 million in recent years, primarily to reduce particulate emissions. She pointed out that the plant meets state and federal requirements and had its permit renewed last year.

“Over the years, the plant has had ongoing communications with community members and leaders to learn their concerns and to share information about the plant,” Patterson said. “We will continue this in the future.”

Carlos Rodriguez, a former Asarco worker, and Veronica Carbajal, an attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represents some former employees suffering health problems, spoke about the smelter cleanup.

“The EPA has the power to make changes that our state refuses to do,” Carbajal said. She said former employees have identified at least six dump sites that were not lined and could degrade water quality. Workers have said equipment and other material that has been sold was not properly decontaminated.

“I’m willing to listen to them and incorporate what they’ve learned into our investigation plan,” said Robert Puga, the trustee overseeing the cleanup for Project Navigator. “They haven’t contacted me about it.”

Puga, interviewed by telephone, said the material that was sold generally is sprayed with high-pressure water to remove the dust, which contains the contaminants. It is then shipped to companies that are aware of pollution problems at the site.

Rodriguez urged Jackson to have the EPA take over the cleanup, and a letter submitted by Carbajal asked that the smelter site be included on the Superfund list, which would make more federal money available for cleanup.

“The Superfund resources of EPA already have been activated,” Jackson said. “If there are areas we believe need to be tested, we will do that.”

Jackson said the EPA was monitoring the cleanup and would step in, if necessary.

“That’s not the right answer,” Carbajal said. “We need the EPA to step in now É before asphalt and concrete cover it up.”

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