Q&A: Man leading Asarco cleanup says saving stack would cost $14M (4:10 a.m.)

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

Roberto Puga is the man in charge of cleaning up more than 100 years of smelting activity at the Asarco site. He works for Project Navigator, a California-based company chosen to implement a $52 million cleanup plan created by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and funded by Asarco as part of its bankruptcy agreement. Demolition of structures at the plant is scheduled to begin this week. It will last for about a year, culminating with the toppling of the two smokestacks.

Q Have you ever done anything like this before?

A Yes, I have. I was the project coordinator and project manager for the Tex-Tin Superfund site in Texas City right outside of Galveston. That was a tin smelter during World War II. It had many of the same environmental problems and it had a stack we had to bring down.

Q Why is the iconic smokestack with the Asarco lettering going to be destroyed?

A When I came on board and met with (El Paso) Mayor (John) Cook … he asked me if we could leave it up. We heard from a lot of other community folks who said please consider leaving the stack up. So I hired a structural engineer to look at that possibility. Did it have the structural strength to remain standing? Were there environmental risks in leaving it up? As it turned out, it was designed and built in the ’60s before current (earthquake) theory had (been written into building) code. The stack did not meet code. The study showed that bringing it up to code, maintaining it and insuring it would have cost $14 million. Once they found out how much it cost … the sentiment turned.

Q Is $52 million enough for the cleanup?

A I think $52 million was enough money for the remedy that had been negotiated with Asarco. It’s just that I think that end remedy is not appropriate for the end vision that the city and community have. The remedy would have been suitable if the plant had continued smelting copper. There were two big things. The biggest one is Parker Brothers Arroyo (currently buried under tons of slag, a smelting byproduct), how we’re going to rehabilitate that arroyo. The second was a pumping-based groundwater remedy. We’re going to minimize the amount of groundwater that goes to the subsurface (by putting a water barrier on the bottom of Parker Brothers Arroyo, a main stormwater collector). We halt that by (letting) the water run over land directly into the Rio Grande so it doesn’t mix with contaminated groundwater.

Q What is the greatest challenge you face?

A That’s twofold. The first one I think was to make sure the community at large understood what is being done and to overcome many years of distrust that had been building up with Asarco in the past. We started an aggressive outreach program and we had hard, detailed discussions with many of the grassroots organizations in town and with (environmental regulators). I think we’ve been extremely open with the media, never saying “no comment” and never refusing an interview. … It has given us some credibility with the community that we’re doing it the right way. The second challenge was to achieve the resources necessary to implement the remedy necessary for the end vision that the city and community (by using money from the sale of equipment and material on the site).

Q Is it realistic to think that people will buy some of that property and build homes on it?

A I think so. The property that is slated for residential is the property across the freeway. … Although Asarco did use part of that property as a waste dump, we’re going to clean-close it … making it suitable for residential development. I think we have the money and the experience to effectuate the cleanup that is necessary.

Q What about claims of former employees that unknown contaminants from illegal burning could pose a public health threat?

A We’ve addressed these. … We have listened to former employees more than once. Last summer in July, they pointed out areas where they had concerns and we have incorporated those into our remediation plans. (Recently), they showed us areas of concerns where they thought there had been spills and inappropriate materials handling. … We are cognizant of the health and safety issues not only of the public, but our onsite workers. (Federal and state environmental regulators) have reviewed our plans and say we are doing the right thing. (After discussions with former employees) we’re going to go out and (conduct testing to see) if there’s something we didn’t know about. … I think we have the majority of the community comfortable with what we’re doing and it’s time to move forward.

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