Trustee seeks to fix up arroyo at Asarco

By Chris Roberts – El Paso Times

An arroyo on Asarco property long buried under tons of black slag could be transformed into a natural greenbelt for hiking and biking, says the man in charge of cleaning up the century-old smelter site.

Asarco trustee Roberto Puga believes the arroyo — which stretches from the Rio Grande to Interstate 10 — is a vital part of the site cleanup. It would increase the value of land on smelter property pegged for residential development, provide improved stormwater drainage and create a recreational area, he said. And Puga does not want to leave a dirty, black reminder of environmental ruin when the cleanup is finished.

“Given the vision everyone has for the site, the condition of the arroyo is not consistent,” Puga said. “That’s what prompted me to find some way to rehabilitate that arroyo.”

Puga’s problem is that the remediation cost — estimated at between $15 million and $20 million — was not included in the $52 million Asarco agreed to pay for cleanup when the company declared bankruptcy.

“Based on the sampling results, the slag in the Parker Brothers Arroyo does not pose a threat to human health and the environment,” said Terry Clawson, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s media relations manager. “Therefore, the area was not included in the TCEQ’s bankruptcy cost estimate.”

Charlie Wakeem, El Paso Open Space Advisory Board chairman, visited the site in October.

“You really can’t walk in (the arroyo) because it’s all slag,” Wakeem said. “It’s full of dangerous contaminated material and it flows directly into the Rio Grande. (The project) is critical.”

Puga said he does not believe slag in the lower part of the arroyo poses a health threat. University of Texas at El Paso researchers found that the slag, which in various places contains lead, arsenic, cadmium and other toxic materials, effectively traps those substances in a glasslike matrix, he said. That means repeated drenchings should not release contaminants into the environment.

Nonetheless, environmental watchdogs and former smelter employees have warned that radioactive and other unidentified toxic material was handled illegally at the site. The workers blame exposure to those materials for illnesses — including multiple sclerosis and unexplained rashes — they suffer with unusual frequency. They are concerned that Puga and state and federal environmental officials have not tested for those contaminants, which could spread to the community through the sale of material and demolition activities.

Puga has said there is no persuasive evidence of such contaminants.

The Parker Brothers Arroyo accounts for about 1 million cubic yards of slag, Puga said. It is piled as deep as 50 feet.

Most of that slag was dumped in the last decade, he said, during copper-smelting operations. However, some of the “fines” — crushed slag — dumped higher up was produced during lead smelting. Crushing creates more surface area that could allow leaching of lead and other contaminants into the groundwater, he said. Money for cleaning up the fines material was included in the budget.

Arroyo slag would be removed and buried in high-tech, on-site landfills, Puga said. However, he added, some of it could be used for road base in a project under negotiation with the Texas Department of Transportation that would add freeway access to the property.

The arroyo would be stripped to the dirt, he said. A liner would be installed on the bottom to prevent clean stormwater from mixing with contaminated groundwater. Groundwater under the entire 125-acre site is contaminated, Puga said. The cleanup plan includes a long-term process for filtering out groundwater contamination.

A coarse, concrete layer on top of the liner would be covered with sand and gravel, he said, providing the needed drainage and a natural appearance.

So how will he pay for it?

Puga has raised more than $7 million from the sale of equipment and waste material that still contains valuable metals. A contractor that will demolish the structures on the site is paying $1 million to do the job because it will keep the scrap iron and steel. That also saves about $6 million budgeted for demolition, he said.

“That’s getting pretty close to $15 million,” Puga said. “I think I need to find a little public money to get me over the hump.”

Puga said he thinks the project has enough public value to qualify for infrastructure grants, possibly federal economic stimulus money. The current culverts and other drainage structures in that area were built decades ago before paving at higher altitudes funneled greater volumes of stormwater runoff, he said. The arroyo project would make required adjustments, he said.

Selling the property will provide the only other significant income, he said.

“But we can’t sell it until we do the remediation,” Puga said. “So, I’m not really banking on it.”

Even though the project details and funding sources still have to be worked out, Puga said, arroyo slag could be headed for on-site landfills by August.

“We’re proceeding as if this project is going forward,” he said.

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