Possible toxic sites ID’d at Asarco (4 a.m.)

Chris Roberts – Las Cruces Sun-News – El Paso Times

Former Asarco workers walked through the century-old smelter Saturday showing regulators where potentially toxic materials leaked or were buried.

“We got preliminary information on where those potential pits or disposal locations were,” said Carlos Sanchez, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Arkansas and Texas Superfund Section. “We also got information on what they (former Asarco employees) believe was disposed or spilled.”

The EPA denied an El Paso Times request to accompany the workers as they provided the information. At least four ex-employees, eight representatives from companies involved in the cleanup and five regulators toured the site. A survey crew noted GPS coordinates for seven locations, Sanchez said.

“It was well worth the effort,” said Roberto Puga, the trustee running the cleanup.

Puga said the sites could not be characterized as unlined landfills. Rather, they were places where toxic materials might have leaked or been piled. “They are more areas of concern, a lot of which we knew about already,” he said.

Toxic materials could include the usual smelting byproducts of arsenic, lead and cadmium, Sanchez said.

In one spot, workers said, 55-gallon drums of oil likely leaked polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the ground. Another area involved leakage of acid used to separate out valuable metals.

Electric motors and other such equipment were dumped in another area. And an old smelter smokestack was demolished and buried in an arroyo on the site, they said.

Two areas could not be approached because of demolition work, Puga said, but they will be included in the follow-up plan.

All those sites — which were used as far back as the early 1970s — were spread across the plant on both sides of Interstate 10, workers said.

A plan based on the information shared will be available in about two weeks, Puga said. Staff will look to see what is new, he said, and determine whether further testing is required. Cleanup plans will be adjusted, if necessary, he said.

“As we receive additional information, we’ll go back and see what more needs to be done,” Sanchez said. “They (former employees) have legitimate concerns and we believe, ultimately, the cleanup will address those concerns and issues.”

Ernesto Robles worked at the plant for 30 years and was a supervisor before it closed in 1999. “I was in the yard department and I worked all over the place here and I know what was buried,” Robles said.

Most of the sites were undocumented and unprotected, Robles said, which means the toxic material could have evaporated into the air or leached into the soil.

Although the ex-employees were happy that regulators listened, they expressed frustration about the process.

“Why did it take four months to get to today?” asked Patrick Garza, a former employee. “It’s because (they) avoided us.”

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