Asarco is disappearing 30 percent of copper smelter demolished

By Robert Gray – El Paso Inc.

Framed by the guts of a massive building, clawed machines tear into what’s left of Asarco.

Blackened sheet metal clings to the remains of the building’s twisted metal frame, in a scene that could have been torn from “War of the Worlds.”

The men operating the bulldozers are hidden by layers of clothing and large respirators, protection against the lead, cadmium, arsenic and other metals that pollute the 120-acre property.

The project that many foresaw dragging on for years, if not decades, is on a fast track, with the demolition portion of the project on schedule to be finished by the end of this year.

That includes the removal of massive warehouses and furnace buildings the size of small stadiums, and about 100 smaller buildings and rigs.

The 35-person crew has completed about 30 percent of the demolition, removing the equipment that can be salvaged and reducing the rest of the structures to scrap, according to Robert Puga, the trustee in charge of the site. The demolition is being done by Brandenburg Industrial Service Co., headquartered in Chicago.

On this cloudy July morning, inside the former Asarco copper smelter, Walter Boyle, the on-site manager, drives an old pickup truck along a road strewn with piles of twisted metal. He’s almost a stones throw away from the Rio Grande, on the border of Mexico, New Mexico and Texas.

“This pile to the right was the carpenter’s shop,” Boyle says, pointing to a scrap heap.

VIP viewing
Ahead, the iconic 828-foot smokestack now stands naked, with a large doorway-shaped hole in its side. The tubes that blasted the hot air and gasses from the furnaces up through it have been carted off.

The big stack, once reputed to be the tallest in the world, as well as the 610-foot stack, will be felled by explosives the first quarter of next year, according to Puga.

VIPs will be able to watch the spectacle from a special viewing area, Boyle says, when the almost 24,000 tons of concrete, reinforced by 162 miles of steel, will be laid out like a felled tree into a bed of sand meant to keep particles and chunks from escaping the site.

Today, in an effort to keep down the dust, the roads are muddy from water sprayed from what look like oversized sprinklers onto the metal scrap the bulldozers are pulling apart.

There is no wind and the streams of water seem to be doing their job.

But during one of El Paso’s dust storms? Like any other construction or destruction site, “You can’t do anything about that,” Boyle says.

Dotted across the site, gray boxes mounted on tripods powered by solar panels monitor the levels of dust during the demolition.

Boyle explains his Texas, no-nonsense, take on the pollution.

“You don’t eat the dirt here, you don’t look up with your mouth open when there are birds around,” he says.

Historic site
From a Foreign Service career that took him to 65 countries – serving as consul in places like Argentina, Syria and Spain – to a career at Asarco and now a job overseeing its destruction, Boyle says he is staying to the end.

“I plan to stay here until we hand the keys to the new owner,” he says.

Boyle began working at Asarco in El Paso in 1994, first as contract administrator, then site manager.

Working in Africa, he says he faced having to send his kids to boarding school. So he decided to bring his family to El Paso, where he has fond memories growing up.

Boyle remembers when Asarco was a technologically advanced operation that provided hundreds of jobs for the region.

The site began operations as a lead smelter in 1887 and started producing copper in 1910. Plagued by a series of environmental problems and a slump in the price of copper, Asarco declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005 and shut down.

“It is a nostalgic feeling in that this has been here for so long,” Boyle says, looking at what’s left of the converter building. In about a month, the building should be gone. It housed the furnaces and, inside, employees had to brave the 120-degree temperatures.

Next on our Dantesque tour through Asarco, Boyle drives past a sign that reads “Respirators Required Inside” and into the bedding building. Above the sign, the word “Danger” is spray painted in bright orange letters with arrows pointing to the sign in case anybody might have missed it.

When Asarco was operational, the ore was stored in bins that are 100 yards long and hold 10,000 tons of ore each.

Now, Boyle says, it provides a handy place to store the scrap before it is sold and shipped off. For that reason, it will be one of the last buildings to go.

A load of ore was left on the site when it shut down, and while it looks like piles of blackened dirt and rock, it’s rich in copper, iron and even some silver and gold. The heap was sold for $10 million and some scrap lead for $1 million, according to Puga.

Asarco’s oxygen plant is going to Africa, a load of copper will be crushed in Mexico and then sold to Chinese end users.

The lead has been slated for use in the manufacture of automobile batteries, according to a release.

With metal prices up, the equipment, scrap and ore sold from the site has made the trust a tidy bundle, which Puga says will allow them to take the remediation a step further.

To help pay for the cleanup, a trust of $52 million was put aside in the $1.8-billion Asarco bankruptcy settlement. It’s enough to essentially demolish the structures, pave over the site, and clean and contain the polluted groundwater.

A small dirt hill, aptly named “Borrow Mountain,” located on land once owned by Asarco just across Interstate 10 from the main smelter site will be leveled and furnish dirt needed to cap the site, Boyle says.

The extra dollars received by the trust from the sale of the ore, equipment and scrap will take the project further and go toward restoring the arroyo, named the Parker Brothers Arroyo, that runs through the property.

Boyle drives the truck along the edge of the Arroyo. Instead of brown and green, the Arroyo is black. It is coated in slag, the black byproduct of smelting that’s piled up along Interstate 10. When the plant was operational, the slag was poured into the arroyo, and at night Boyle says it looked like molten lava.

Now the arroyo is reminiscent of a dried lava field.

A community meeting will be held in October to discuss the demolition of the large stacks, according to Puga. Updates can be found on the Asarco Trust’s website, RecastingTheSmelter.com.

E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.