Demolition: Asarco cleanup to alter scenery

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

One hundred years of history will begin to disappear at the Asarco site next week, said the man in charge of cleaning up the former smelter.

It will take about a year to dismantle or destroy storage tanks, cooling towers, metal processing plants, water-treatment facilities and the rest of the structures on the site, which is sandwiched between Interstate 10 and Paisano Drive on El Paso’s West Side. Among the first to go will be the acid storage tanks visible from I-10 on the east side of the main operations area and the wastewater-treatment plant that sits above Paisano on its west side, said Roberto Puga, the site trustee.

“It’s really going to change people’s drive,” Puga said.

In the first phases, buildings with metal structures will be pulled down, then concrete foundations will be jackhammered, and later explosives will be used to implode concrete buildings.

Some equipment that has been sold will be pressure-washed with water and trucked off the site, Puga said. That water is recaptured, treated with a rented water purifier and reused, he said.

Contaminated soil and slag on the east side of I-10 and elsewhere will be buried in high-tech landfills on site, Puga said.

The final act will be the toppling of the two smokestacks. The tallest, at 826 feet, still bears the Asarco name and can be seen for miles.

By about 2016, the main operations area will be topped with about 5 feet of soil and put up for sale, Puga said. Areas away from the plant center can be cleaned up enough to be sold as residential properties, he said.

Throughout the demolition process, workers will monitor dust in the air, Puga said. During events expected to produce significant amounts of dust, samples from the monitors will be tested for the main contaminants on-site, which include lead, arsenic and cadmium, he said.

Those protection measures are mainly intended for cleanup workers, Puga said, because contamination is not expected to drift off-site in quantities that would endanger public health.

Smelter operations at the site began in the late 1800s, and for decades Asarco provided jobs with good pay and benefits. The plant closed in 1999 when copper prices dropped. In recent years, city leaders fought its reopening, arguing that a polluting industry should not be operating in the heart of the city.

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that the plant would have to make significant upgrades to reopen, the company decided it would remain shuttered. A few years ago, Asarco went bankrupt and agreed to pay $52 million for cleanup.

Carlos Rodriguez started working for Asarco when he was 23 and stayed for nearly 30 years. He is among a group of employees who suffer health problems and are asking for more testing, in particular to reveal contaminants that resulted from illegal burning of Rocky Mountain Arsenal waste in the 1990s. Puga said he has expanded the list of suspected contaminants and is examining areas where the former employees say illegal dumping took place.

“It’s certainly a big piece of my life,” Rodriguez said. “I spent my youth there and my adult life there.”

He remembers the softball teams, bowling leagues and other company activities.

“They had very loyal employees,” Rodriguez said, “but in the end, they weren’t loyal to us.”

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

This is an aerial map depicting the Asarco smelter site demolition project that is scheduled to be completed by mid-April 2012.