Asarco smokestack: El Paso group wants to save landmark

by Chris Roberts \ El Paso Times

The towering Asarco smokestack — formerly slated for demolition in the spring — has a new lease on life.

A group of impassioned El Pasoans now have a year to try to save the 826-foot-tall structure that juts from El Paso’s heart. For those people, demolition would be an ignominious end for an iconic El Paso landmark. They also want to save the smaller concrete stack, which is about 610 feet tall.

It will be up to the community group to find the money, mostly from private sources, to preserve the stack, which some regard as an old family friend. Its defenders believe the 45-year-old structure could attract business and tourism.

They say it represents a century-old economic engine that purified ores from Mexico, providing metal to build the infrastructure of an industrializing nation. And that activity shaped El Paso in the process.

Refinery jobs created a blue-collar heritage still shared by hundreds, if not thousands, of city residents. It attracted white-collar workers, including engineers, geologists and mineralogists. Money flowed from the east to build the plant. High-powered industry executives called El Paso home.

“Those were the big houses in Sunset Heights,” said Gary Sapp, a longtime resident. “Fortunes were made.”

Sapp and Robert Ardovino — who has championed environmental causes, including the movement to close the polluting refinery — are marshaling support for the stacks.

They met with Roberto Puga, the man in charge of site demolition and cleanup, on Monday.

“We came to an agreement that if they can show me there’s a real groundswell of support to keep it up,” Puga said, “then I’m willing to give them a one-year moratorium.”

On Thursday, Puga, receiving emails of support as he spoke, said he would grant the yearlong stay of execution.

Before the reprieve, Puga had proposed a different type of monument, which involved saving the bottom 15 feet of the stack. That project would cost between $2.5 million and $3 million, most of which would have to be raised by the community. Copper from the smelter would be donated for a dome roof. Three murals on the outer walls would depict the 1880s founding spirit, the nation’s industrial might, and the environmental activism that helped close the plant. Water would cascade down a rock wall built around the stack’s base and collect in a pond with low walls that provide seating.

But that vision is on a back burner now, Puga said. He will not pursue it further unless the effort to save the stacks is unsuccessful.

“I don’t see how this is not the most historically significant structure in El Paso,” Ardovino said. “It means things to people.”

Ardovino, who operates a business in Sunland Park, says community leaders are already getting on board, including state Sen. José Rodríguez, City Council members and others.

“I am one of those who thinks we ought to maintain it, if we can,” Rodríguez said, because of “the heritage and historical significance.”

A major stumbling block has been an estimated $14 million price tag for a 50-year preservation effort. The figure was included in an engineering study commissioned by Puga.

That included retrofitting for earthquake resistance, purchasing liability insurance and maintaining the stack over those decades.

Sapp and Ardovino believe that there are many ways to cut costs and that the stacks will, in large part, pay for themselves.

Earthquake retrofitting, at $5.8 million, is the largest cost in the study.

“Why does El Paso not (have) earthquake standards for any buildings and yet this smokestack needs earthquake protection?” Ardovino asked.

Those regulations are enforced by the city of El Paso. The standards are part of the International Building Code, used by most U.S. enforcement agencies, and vary by region based on seismic activity. El Paso is in the zone just above no activity, said Victor Morrison-Vega, the city’s deputy director of energy and construction management.

Regarding the smokestack, “there aren’t any retrofit requirements,” Morrison-Vega said.

Nonetheless, El Paso has seen significant seismic activity in the distant past, said Diane Doser, professor of geological sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Geologic evidence of a magnitude-7 quake — capable of widespread, heavy damage — has been uncovered on the east side of the Franklin Mountains, Doser said.

The event occurred between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago, she said. Earthquakes in northern Chihuahua, Mexico, in April and May appear to have been a type that is localized, Doser said, and probably do not portend similar occurrences in the El Paso area.

But a 1995 earthquake centered near Alpine was felt by people in El Paso’s tallest buildings, she added.

Low-level seismic activity, which cannot be felt, is detected about once a month at UTEP’s Kidd Memorial Seismic Observatory, said Doser, the observatory director.

And, as research better characterizes the regional geology, the area now is considered slightly more prone to earthquake activity than it was in the 1960s when the stack was designed and built, she said.

“We think it needs to be retrofitted, and we’re not going to back away from that,” Puga said.

In an email to a Rodríguez staff member, Puga advised “careful, prudent judgement.” He wrote that the tower was maintained when the plant was in operation. For the last 12 years, Puga said, there has been essentially no maintenance. He warned that a collapse could cause fatalities and asked whether the stack could be safely dropped in the future if the surroundings are developed.

Any plan to save the stack will have to not only release the trust from liability, Puga said, but also indemnify it.

“I think that’s a very important consideration,” Rodríguez said of the structural safety concerns. “I don’t think it would be wise for us as a community to ignore those facts.”

Even if a retrofit is not necessary, there still is the need for liability insurance and periodic maintenance.

Sapp is convinced those costs will be reasonable. He and Puga agreed that liability insurance would cost in the neighborhood of $45,000 annually. Sapp also questioned the need for a 30 percent contingency fee. And there will be about a $1 million savings if the stack is not demolished, he said, as well as additional savings from not having to put the debris in landfills.

Sapp said the stacks could pay for themselves by attaching advertising, and as a historic magnet to attract people to businesses in the area.

“The developers are looking for community icons to build their centers around so they have local identity,” said Sapp, who works for the Hunt Development Group. Sapp said he understands that Puga needs “a viable, credible, bankable plan.”

“The reason we wanted a delay was so we could drill to the bottom of it,” he said.

Public money could be hard to find.

Some federal stimulus money might still be available, Rodríguez said, but he was not immediately aware of any state funding source.

“They need a third-party group that wants to assume that liability,” said city Rep. Steve Ortega said. “I will not support the city of El Paso spending resources to preserve the stack.”

City Rep. Susie Byrd said she might support a public private effort, but she was not optimistic about city funding.

The project would compete with Downtown renovation, soccer fields and other needs, Byrd said. “I think, ideally, it would be better to have it preserved,” Byrd said. “But I’m not sure if it makes sense for the city to take ownership or management of it.”

Sapp is convinced the project will be affordable, and he thinks people can get past the legacy of pollution and the resulting health problems claimed by some.

“What’s happened is people are waking up to the fact that the tower is benign. The wicked witch, Asarco, is dead and we killed her,” Sapp said. “It could just as easily be a symbol of community pride as community shame.”

Chris Roberts may be reached at; 546-6136.

Get involved

  • People who want to find a way to save the Asarco smokestacks from demolition can attend a supporters meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the new El Paso Community Foundation offices in the Mills Building in Downtown El Paso. The office is on the first floor, plaza side.
  • The trustee in charge of the Asarco demolition and cleanup project has called a community meeting at the El Paso Main Library, 501 N. Oregon, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday. Topics will include project status and coming activities. Experts will be available to answer questions.