EPA joins in walk-through at Asarco: Past employees want further site tests before cleanup begins

Chris Roberts – El Paso Times

Former Asarco workers walked through the smelter on Friday identifying areas for testing they believe will reveal toxic materials illegally handled at the site before it closed in 1999.

After the walk, they met with a U.S. .Environmental Protection Agency official and started a formal process to identify numerous undocumented landfills where they say toxic material was buried. After receiving more information on locations, sizes and materials buried, a scientific method will be designed to test the areas for contaminants, said Charles Fisher, the EPA official.

“It’s great that they’re (the EPA) here, but it’s unfortunate that it was 14 months after (cleanup) operations began,” said Veronica Carbajal, an attorney representing the former Asarco workers.

Former employees requested that an EPA official accompany them on the tour, which included a stop at a water treatment installation that caught fire last week. They have been asking for a year and half that further testing be done before the process of site remediation begins, Carbajal said.

They say Roberto Puga, the trustee employed to oversee the $52.5 million cleanup, has been unresponsive.

Puga, who walked with the former employees Friday, said he has already included sites and materials identified by the former employees into the proposed cleanup plan.

“All of that information will be taken into consideration in our final remediation plan,” Puga said. “We promised to be open and transparent, and this (the walk-through) is as good evidence of that as possible.”

However, the former employees and local watchdogs have uncovered documents they say are evidence that radioactive and other previously unidentified toxic materials were handled at the site, which means the area should be tested for those things.

Puga said there has been no testing for radioactivity because the documents do not show that any such material was processed there.

Carbajal said Puga has relied on documentation supplied by Asarco, which should not be trusted.

Contents of the confidential settlement with Asarco that required Asarco to pay for the cleanup still have not been revealed.

And, recently, more than a dozen boxes of documents turned up that might have information on Rocky Mountain Arsenal waste that ended up at Asarco, where it was illegally incinerated. The arsenal site was used to manufacture nerve gases, pesticides another toxic compounds. “We feel the remediation plans will be incomplete because you don’t have all the data,” Carbajal said.

Federal officials are going through those boxes to take out any personnel or other information that is not considered public, Fisher said.

Fisher said the cleanup could take as long as five years, which allows time to do additional testing on the site and to include new data in the cleanup plan. He said one area identified Friday by former employees will not be demolished until it is determined whether testing should be conducted.

Former employees also asked for air samples related to the fire, which burned for about an hour and a half. Workers using torches to cut open a tank ignited titanium pipes inside.

Black smoke clouds flowed when grates containing Fiberglas caught fire on top of the tower.

Fisher and a representative from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said they would submit the workers’ request for testing to their agencies.

“This is a very serious matter to us,” former employee Carlos Rodriguez told Fisher. “The EPA has been very halfhearted. You need to protect the community.”

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