Group meets to discuss saving Asarco smokestacks

By Chris Roberts / EL PASO TIMES

The man in charge of cleaning up the shuttered Asarco smelter might consider selling the iconic smokestacks to a private group forming to save them. But he warned that there is much to be done and little time.

About 80 people gathered at a “Save the Stacks” meeting Tuesday night in the Anson Mills Building Downtown questioned Roberto Puga, the Asarco site trustee, about the possibilities.

“It is a tall order for anybody to do this and produce in 12 months,” Puga warned. “I don’t want any of you leaving this room thinking it’s easy or a slam-dunk, because it’s not.”

Last week, Puga agreed to delay demolition of the two smokestacks, which had been slated to come down in February, for a year. Although most of the emails he received since announcing his decision have been supportive, Puga said, “my stopping, to some folks, seems to be a breach of trust.” He said strong emotions exist on both sides of the issue.

“The Asarco smokestack an El Paso icon? Historically significant? (It’s a) symbol of pollution and millions of dollars in clean up,” Daphne Ramirez wrote in an email to the El Paso Times. “Tear down those smoke stacks quickly and remove the eyesores. Build something beautiful and historically significant that we can be proud of now and in the future.”

But the majority of people at the Tuesday night meeting said the stacks are worth saving. Some said they could bring businesses and tourists to the site.

“Why not just sell it to us?” Steven Jones, a West Side resident who worked in real estate for 40 years, asked Puga.

“I don’t think that’s out of the question,” Puga responded, “but it’s premature.”

Puga advised the group to first commission an engineering study, which he estimated would cost between $25,000 and $50,000, to determine whether the stacks are stable.

“There needs to be a full structural evaluation of both towers,” Puga said. “It must be done by a structural engineer licensed to practice in Texas.”

A study commissioned by Puga concluded that a 50-year restoration program would cost about $14 million, but supporters of the endeavor believe it will cost significantly less.

Gary Sapp, a longtime El Paso resident who is organizing the effort, has suggested that about $1 million spent on demolishing the stacks and the additional expense of putting the rubble in a high-tech landfill could be diverted to the restoration effort.

But Puga said money from his $52 million budget could be spent only on remediation efforts. It is possible, however, that something like sealing the stacks to prevent the spread of contaminants would qualify, he added.

“We’re probably going to be looking everywhere and anywhere for money for this tremendous task,” said Robert Ardovino, a local business owner and organizer.

Ultimately, Save the Stacks will have to raise “millions of dollars” and create a legal entity that will assume complete liability, Puga said.

Although El Paso’s building codes do not require retrofitting to ensure that the stacks are earthquake resistant, Puga has insisted it is the prudent thing to do. Retrofitting the tallest stack, which rises to 826 feet, is estimated at $5.8 million. That does not include the smaller, 610-foot stack, he said.

Other development projects have successfully incorporated industrial sites with smokestacks, Puga said, but those towers were significantly shorter.

“Here, the stack is immense,” he said.

That could be a benefit, Ardovino said. “If we called it a monument today,” he said, “it would be the tallest monument in the United States.”

Site remediation will continue, Puga said, including moving slag into landfills and beginning the process of cleaning contaminated groundwater.

“We can wait on the towers while the healthy public debate goes on,” he said.

Edwin Cheslik, whose father was the Asarco safety director in the 1980s, said he grew up in a house on the refinery site. He supports saving the stacks.

“There were a lot of generations of families that worked there,” he said. “They put a lot of their (lives) into that place.”

Ardovino said the stacks are no longer polluting the surroundings and “never will again.”

But the realities of more than 100 years of contamination have left a legacy. One audience member asked whether the stacks and their surroundings would be safe for children.

“I’m not going to say that,” Puga said. “The new owners have to say that.”

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