Asarco stacks to get year’s reprieve

But trustee says tower preservation still a ‘tall order’

By David Crowder / El Paso Inc. staff writer

Asarco’s bankruptcy trustee, Roberto Puga, has decided to delay the February demolition of the remaining two stacks until the end of next year.

Early last week, Puga said he would consider canceling the planned February demolition in response to the fledgling Save the Stacks effort led by Gary Sapp and Robert Ardovino after meeting with them Monday.

By Friday, his mind was made up.

“Given what I’ve seen the last couple of days, I’m just going to go ahead and grant the moratorium,” Puga said. “I’m getting a lot of e-mail from public people and private citizens and companies in support of waiting.”

Those e-mail messages, he said, numbered in the dozens.

Puga said he’ll formally announce his decision at a public meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday at the Main Library Downtown.

Before making that decision, he said he wanted to gauge the community’s support for saving the Asarco stacks, to assure himself that Sapp and Ardovino weren’t just speaking for themselves.

Sapp is president of the Southwest Division at Hunt Development Group, and Ardovino owns Ardovino’s Desert Crossing Restaurant in Sunland Park, N.M.

“I think I have a responsibility to really ascertain whether there’s a credible amount of folks who are going to pursue this,” Puga said.

He had previously said he was making plans to have the stacks demolished on Presidents Day weekend next February, because he had made it known over a year ago that he would give the community a year to step forward if it wanted to save the Asarco stacks.

No public or private entity or group expressed serious interest in preservation so, he said, he spent a significant amount of money and time making arrangements for demolition.

Ardovino said he, the city and others in the community involved in the fight with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to prevent Asarco from re-opening were so exhausted and relieved when they won that they relaxed and put Asarco out of their minds for months.

“Now we’re down to it,” he said. “Some of us have gotten a new breath of fresh air and realize it just does not make sense to destroy the two stacks that are left.”

Preservation costs

Puga estimated it would cost $14 million over the long term to preserve and stabilize the tallest of the two remaining towers on the Asarco site. Sapp and Ardovino say that figure is wildly high and that the immediate cost would be much less, a belief that will have to be tested by a new engineering report, they concede.

The tallest stack, which still bears the Asarco name in black letters, was completed in 1950 and stands 828 feet tall, according to an Asarco engineering report.

It has a 62-foot base diameter and contains 857,460 linear feet or 162 miles of reinforcing steel and 23,800 tons of concrete. The older stack, finished in 1950, reaches up 610 feet.

Saving those stacks will not be easy, Puga said.

“They’re going to have to demonstrate the financial strength to get this project done,” he said. “They need to have some sort of a legal entity that has some backing that will take ownership and liability for the towers. They’re going to have to show they have the wherewithal to indemnify the trust and the trust beneficiary, and they need to do all this in a year.

“That’s a tall order.”

Early last week, El Paso City Manager Joyce Wilson had not yet heard of the possible moratorium on demolition and seemed cool to the idea.

“The trustee has not contracted me about reversing his position, and I certainly am not going to recommend any city money for this purpose given all the other more important issues we have to deal with,” Wilson said. “There has never been a groundswell on the council to do anything but let the process go its course.

“A lot of people were sentimental about it, but they didn’t want to pay any money so at the end of the day, the city’s decision was to move on. If this new group is going to raise the money to save them, more power to them.”

At least two City Council members are behind Ardovino and Sapp, but Mayor John Cook isn’t one of them.

“My goal when we took on Asarco and spent $1 million fighting them was to make sure they no longer polluted the air and the water,” Cook said. “For all intents and purposes, my mission has been accomplished at great cost to the taxpayers of El Paso.

“My position on the smoke stacks is I don’t care one way or the other. But I can tell you I don’t want to jeopardize the limited resources we have for the clean-up.”

The bankruptcy court handling the Asarco liquidation has set aside $52 million to clean up the site, and Cook doesn’t want any money to save the stacks coming out of that.

“There are other ways to preserve the history, like a museum,” he said. “I don’t know that you have to have an 800-foot reminder of that history.”

Other than seeing the site cleaned up, Cook expressed only one desire.

“If they do demolish it, I want to have my finger on the trigger,” he said.

In addition to the meeting Thursday at which Puga plans to announce his final decision about the demolition, Sapp and Ardovino have organized another meeting intended for supporters.

It will begin at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the El Paso Community Foundation’s new meeting place, the Foundation Room, at 333 N. Oregon across from San Jacinto Plaza.

Sapp sent an e-mail to nearly 100 people last week asking for support and urging them to e-mail to Puga at rpuga@projectnavigator.com and to attend the meeting.

“There is no cost to anyone for this delay,” Sapp said. “Other communities have been very creative in using historic icons as the centerpieces of vibrant redevelopments. The Asarco site is in the heart of our city. It deserves the same attention.

“San Antonio almost tore down the Alamo because people were saying it was an ‘eyesore.'”