Asarco history vital in El Paso site cleanup

by Chris Roberts \ El Paso Times

Before the century-old Asarco refinery closed in 1999, workers sweated above smelting furnaces replacing fire bricks as they melted, donned protective clothing to crawl into acid tanks temporarily drained for repairs and performed other dangerous jobs.

Drawing on decades of cumulative experience, those employees are now working with Roberto Puga, the Asarco trustee in charge of the $52 million demolition and cleanup, to locate places where acids leaked and other spills or dumping of dangerous chemicals might have occurred. Samples have been taken at many of the sites pointed out by the former workers during a tour in March.

And they are petitioning for more.

Although media were not allowed to accompany workers on the March tour, a written report describes some of those sites and former workers gathered earlier this week to fill in details of what happened in those locations.

“It would be fair to say that about half of the testing is a result of input we’ve received from the ex-Asarco workers,” Puga said.

The total cost of testing will approach $450,000, Puga said. Analysis of some of the first tests showed nothing unexpected, he said. But some samples still are being analyzed and another round of soil testing is scheduled after the buildings and other structures are demolished.

Workers also have asked for other testing that might reveal some contents of hazardous material that was illegally processed at the site in the 1990s.

In particular, they are asking for testing of waste-heat boiler bricks. Those bricks were not subjected to the intense heat of the furnaces and were not replaced as often. Former employees also are requesting that soil under those boilers and material inside the tallest smokestack be tested. Puga said he is in discussions with the former employees to get more information before a decision is made.

Many of these workers were employed for decades at the smelter as were their fathers and grandfathers. Some were born in Smeltertown right next to the plant.

Over the years Asarco provided an economic engine for El Paso and smelter jobs, with relatively high pay and benefits, were coveted. Although most did not want the plant to close, some now find themselves dealing with various unexplained illnesses, many of which are shortening their lives. It is difficult, however, to provide incontrovertible evidence that chemical exposure at Asarco was the cause.

Nonetheless, the things they experienced and observed at the smelter can guide Puga in his cleanup. Their stories also provide a glimpse of what it was like to be a smelter employee.

Dan Arellano, a third-generation Asarco worker with 24 years on the job, was an acid plant operator when the plant shut down in 1999.

Asarco was selling sulfuric acid gleaned from smelting byproducts, but the merchandise had to be of high purity, which meant removing nitric acid and other chemicals. Nitric acid was siphoned from the top of the tanks into unsealed 55-gallon barrels made of plastic, Arellano said.

“It was heavy, smelly stuff,” he said. “It was a lot stronger than sulfuric acid.”

Nitric acid fumes created purple clouds of smoke, he said.

“You could feel it,” Arellano said, describing a stinging sensation on exposed skin.

Arellano worked in the acid plant control room. Corroded pipes would sometimes leak acid onto the office and Arellano said rivulets would run down the windows. When the leaks were serious everyone but the man at the control panel would be evacuated from the area.

“I’d be stuck in there with my respirator,” Arellano said.

Arellano now suffers from a blood disorder that causes severe pain.

“It’s like a toothache in my skeleton,” he said.

Patrick Garza worked for nine years as a pipefitter and welder.

One of Garza’s jobs was to climb inside the large acid storage tanks — through a 36-inch round opening normally covered by a metal cap that was sealed and bolted — to repair leaks caused by corrosion.

“That was me, the patch man,” Garza said.

The tanks were drained for maintenance, but Garza said acid dripped from the inside walls and the top of the tank.

He wore green acid-resistant clothing called a “turtle suit.” The suit included a full-face mask, which Garza tightened to keep the choking fumes out.

When he went to the Asarco doctor to find out why his face was numb, he was told he was over-tightening the mask. The numbness, he found out later, was a symptom of multiple sclerosis.

In the acid plant, where employees sometimes worked without protective clothing, Garza said certain locations were suffocating.

“You would walk and sometimes you couldn’t breathe,” he said. “Your next breath was a godsend.”

Mario Nevarez, spent 13 years at Asarco on the brick crew.

The furnaces were lined with silica-based fire brick. Nevarez was among those who replaced the bricks, which sometimes involved climbing above the furnace to pull out bricks that had either melted or simply worn away from the intense heat.

He was called late one night to fix the roof of a furnace that he had patched numerous times before. Nigh shift workers had been incinerating material that had been called a “special blend.” It was causing problems in the system and, Nevarez said, apparently was too cold when it entered the furnace.

“The charge was cold and the fire would bounce toward the roof,” he said. “At night, you could see a cloud. It smelled bad.”

Nevarez quit in 1995. Since, he has suffered from a stroke, a weakened immune system and rashes.

Nevarez believes that special blend included hazardous waste that was being illegally burned at the plant. Asarco was sanctioned by the Environmental Protection Agency for storing and burning the waste, but it was classified as “recyclable,” which, by law, did not require detailed documentation.

Many of these former employees are driven to find out exactly what chemicals were in those special blends. They believe it would help them find appropriate treatments and lead to a cleanup that will protect public health.

Puga, the cleanup manager, said his job is to classify materials on site that might present a threat to demolition and remediation workers and the general public. He is not authorized or funded to conduct a forensic investigation into illegal practices at the plant, he said. However, the two groups appear to have found a common ground that could benefit everyone concerned.

“We have found nothing of consequence so far,” Puga said. “But that’s not a reason not to look into those areas. It’s mostly anecdotal stuff … but we want to take a scientific look at those areas.”

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

Closer look: Asarco sites

In March, some former Asarco employees visited the shuttered smelter to point out areas they believe were extremely contaminated. What follows is taken from a report summarizing that visit and the response from demolition and cleanup manager Roberto Puga, the site trustee.

All locations, unless otherwise stated, are within the refinery’s industrial heart. The former employees, in all cases, asked that more testing be done where positive results are found.

  • In the late 1980s or early 1990s, workers were instructed to stack between 60 and 80 large drums of oil from the smelter power house where transformers and other electrical equipment was used and stored. Although the drums were not labeled, the workers believe they contained transformer oil, which at the time contained polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a highly toxic substance banned in 1979 for its harmful health effects.

    After laying out the drums, workers crushed them with tractors, allowing the oil to soak into the ground. Workers were prohibited from walking through the area for days following that.

    Puga approved three additional soil borings in the area to produce samples that will be tested for PCBs and petroleum hydrocarbons. The workers would like to see testing for other toxic contaminants.

  • During the same time period, thousands of gallons of sulfuric acid leaked onto the ground. A”worker stated that the spill was reported to environmental regulators as being less than 300 gallons, which did not require a written report. It seeped into the slag that built up over the years under the refinery. The worker also reported that in the 1990s, a failure at the acid plant’s water treatment system caused leakage through concrete containment structures onto the ground.

    Two 5-foot soil borings were added to collect samples. The samples will be tested for acidity. The workers asked that they be analyzed specifically for nitric and sulfuric acids as well as the other contaminants found at the site.

  • In the late 1980s, one worker observed a foreman collecting a sample from a pool of shiny liquid he believed was mercury.

    Two 5-foot borings were added. As many as two soil samples from each boring will be identified and field team members will look for visible evidence of mercury.

  • An employee who worked at the cadmium plant in the 1970s reported that cadmium and zinc were extracted from dust collected in baghouses on the site. Dust often leaked out through holes in the bags, he said, and material about to be processed was stored in open areas. The plant also produced germanium, which has been linked to kidney damage, during World War II.

    Some sampling was already conducted in the area, Puga said, and more sampling will be done after the plant demolition is complete. The former employees would like to see the samples analyzed for cadmium-production byproducts that also have damaging health effects.

  • An old smokestack was demolished with explosives in 1971. The chimney bricks were dumped into the Parker Brothers Arroyo and the area was covered with molten slag.

    Groundwater samples, both uphill and downhill, already are being collected to determine whether contaminants from the smokestack and other debris dumped into the arroyo are leaching into the water. No additional sampling is planned in that area. The former workers asked that two borings be added that go at least 10 feet deep to try to penetrate the debris.

  • In 1984 and 1985 an Asarco truck driver hauled waste water from the acid plant to a zinc slag pile on the site. The water was poured onto the slag and allowed to leach into the ground. The area was later covered with more slag. The operation was performed an average of four times per eight-hour shift, the former employee said.

    Puga identified that location as the “boneyard,””which already has been tested and targeted for “additional study.”

    “Concentrations of metals in this area are elevated and the boneyard is considered a possible source of groundwater impact,” the report states. “It is anticipated that this area will be an important location for groundwater remediation activities.”

  • Between 1986 and 1989, a worker said sludge from the acid tanks was pumped onto open ground and mixed with soda ash and lime to neutralize acidity. That material was then collected and further processed, the worker said.

    This area also was part of the boneyard, Puga said, and will receive more attention.

  • A trash dump east of I-10 was used to dispose of motors, transformers, dust flues from the acid plants and general construction debris, workers said. The trash was buried under soil excavated from the adjacent mesa. Again, transformers and other electrical equipment used at the time contained PCBs, which likely leaked into the soil, workers said.

    Puga said the landfill area is “well-documented,””and will be tested for chemicals known to exist on the site, including lead, arsenic and cadmium.

    “This area has previously been slated for excavation of the material,””the report states. “To date, over 142,000 cubic yards of material has been removed. An additional 43,000 cubic yards of material is anticipated to be removed as part of the future remediation activities.”

    The report notes that the area will be “clean closed,”””leaving no debris or elevated concentrations of chemicals on the site.””No further action is anticipated by the trust. Former employees asked that the area be tested for PCBs and hydrocarbons.

  • Sludge from the wastewater treatment plant was dumped between the railroad tracks and I-10 during annual maintenance in the 1980s, a worker said. The plant treated water from many of the other operations and could have been contaminated with PCBs, dioxins and other chemicals, the workers said.

    The area has been excavated in previous remedial activities, the report states, and the material placed in on-site landfills.

    “The area contained some of the highest concentrations of metals at the plant, which is consistent with the information provided” by a worker, the report states.

    The trust agreed to do an additional soil boring along the access road “to a maximum depth of 10 feet below ground surface.” Up to four samples will be collected and analyzed for metals. Former employees said at least one more boring should be added and the analysis should include PCBs and dioxins.