5-1 vote rezones ex-Asarco smelter site as SmartCode

By Diana Washington Valdez – El Paso Times

The El Paso City Council voted 5-1 on Tuesday in favor of rezoning the old Asarco smelter property to SmartCode.

Environmental advocates, including two ex-Asarco workers, opposed the rezoning and urged the city representatives to postpone their decision.

City Reps. Beto O’Rourke, Susie Byrd, Ann Morgan Lilly, Steve Ortega and Mayor Pro-tem Emma Acosta voted for the rezoning. Rep. Carl Robinson voted against it. Reps. Rachel Quintana and Eddie Holguin Jr. were not present.

City officials said the property — referred to as Asarco West and Asarco East — is now zoned for unrestricted manufacturing and probably will not be ready for sale for another three years.

They said SmartCode allows for mixed-use development and will force regulators to impose a higher environmental cleanup standard than is now required.

Roberto Puga, trustee of the Asarco Texas Custodial Trust, told the council he agreed with the SmartCode zoning.

Larry Nance, a member of the City Plan Commission, spoke to the council as a private citizen. He said part of the Asarco property site should be saved for a potential industrial employer that might need access to a railroad and will generate high-paying jobs for El Paso.

Veronica Carbajal, a lawyer with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, said not enough independent testing for contaminants has been done at the site. Carbajal said it still may contain dangerous toxins, such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

“We are all for smart growth and for the SmartCode in the correct areas,” Carbajal said. “But I don’t think it’s fair to subject our future children and homeowners to an area that may be contaminated beyond repair at this point in time.”

Mario Nevarez, a former Asarco employee, said some of the contaminants from the smelter site are indestructible. “I suffered a stroke because of these contaminants. É I can’t even read anymore,” Nevarez said.

Robinson agreed that it was premature to rezone the land.

But O’Rourke said he was concerned about leaving the property’s status undetermined, only to have the next City Council possibly decide on something opposite of SmartCode.

Because the city initiated the rezoning request, Mayor John Cook asked the City Council to meet in closed session to discuss any possible liability with the city attorney.

After council members returned from the closed session, they voted on the measure.

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at dvaldez@elpasotimes.com; 546-6140.