El Paso environment: EPA, TCEQ asked to test for toxic compounds at Asarco

By Chris Roberts – El Paso Times

Giant transformers, capacitors and other electric equipment containing a banned toxic chemical vanished from sight at Asarco, but records at the former smelter do not indicate whether they were disposed of properly, says a letter sent to state and federal environmental regulators.

The letter, sent by an attorney representing a group of former Asarco employees, asks that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality immediately mandate testing at a furnace where the equipment and contaminated oil allegedly were burned. It asks that the furnace, soil around the furnace, material containing valuable metals inside the furnace and water used to clean the material before it was sold, be tested for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and other toxic compounds.

Former Asarco employees and contract workers provided statements about barrels of oil and equipment containing PCBs that might have been illegally burned or buried at the site in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Veronica Carbajal, a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney. When subjected to high temperatures — such as those involved in incineration or when cleanup workers use torches to cut apart the furnace during the current demolition — PCBs are converted into other toxic substances, including dioxins and furans, Carbajal said.

“The company operated for more than 100 years,” said Carbajal, who examined records kept at the site. “Nothing pointed to the (legal) disposal of PCBs.”

Spokesmen at both agencies said officials are considering the request.

Roberto Puga, the trustee in charge of cleaning up the site, said that some electrical equipment containing PCBs still exists.

It will be properly disposed of by the company contracted to demolish the smelter, he said. PCB-laced oil, used for cooling, will be drained from a few transformers and they will be cleaned. Some equipment might be reused, he said, although most of it is very old and likely to be sold as scrap. He said PCBs will not be buried in high-tech landfills at the site.

“We take all of those concerns seriously, as we have done in the past,” Puga said. He said he is waiting for a determination from the EPA and TCEQ regarding testing of the furnace and its surroundings.

If PCBs were burned in the reverberatory furnace, they could pose health risks for cleanup workers and the general public when material is sold and transported to companies in the United States and Mexico, the letter states. Money from sale of that material is used to support the cleanup.

“We ask that you instruct (Puga) to adequately test the smelter’s reverberatory furnace for polychlorinated biphenyls … dioxins and furans,” the letter says. “Workers routinely burned multiple 55-gallon drums of oils for at least 10 years. The oils contained PCBs.”

If those toxins are found, the letter states, “the remediation protocol needs to be changed immediately.”

“If no PCBs, dioxins or furans can be found,” the letter continues, “then your agencies and the public can be reassured that the ‘resource recovery’ process is not adding serious contaminants to the environment.”

One former employee described an incident where as many as 80 oil drums were lined up and a tractor was used to smash them, allowing contaminants to run directly into the soil, Carbajal said. The area then was covered with lime rock, the former employee said.

Puga said soil in that area, located by the worker, will be tested for PCBs.

PCBs, used under a variety of trade names, were banned in 1979. The chemicals accumulate in the body causing health problems including cancer, hormonal disruption, immune system suppression, birth defects and fetal death, the letter states.

“PCBs are persistent,” Carbajal said. “They do stick to the soil, they do stick to metals. But I don’t know that they would be on the (ground) surface at this point.”

Over the years, however, it is possible PCBs could have leached into the groundwater, the letter states.

“Water contamination is a grave concern because the entire smelter sits on porous slag directly above groundwater sources and is within yards of the Rio Grande,” Carbajal wrote.

Carbajal said the smelter never obtained the permits required to burn those chemicals.

In 1994, the EPA fined Asarco $19,500 for improperly handling items containing PCBs, which included inadequate record keeping, improper labeling, lack of inspections and unsafe storage practices.

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