Debate over Asarco stacks begins

Trustee unveils new clean up plans for 400-acre site

By David Crowder / El Paso Inc. staff writer

There were plenty of comments, pro and con, about saving the two remaining Asarco stacks at an Asarco update meeting Thursday, but the big news was how dramatically the plans to clean up the site are changing.

About 100 people attended the community meeting at the city’s Main Library, including former Asarco workers, environmental activists and people involved in early efforts to keep Asarco closed.

Also present were fans and opponents of the new Save the Stacks effort that prompted Asarco’s bankruptcy trustee, Roberto Puga, to postpone the planned demolition of the stacks in February for a year.

“I do want to emphasize that no decision has been made to keep the stacks, yet,” said Puga, who is in charge of cleaning up and eventually selling off the 400-acre Asarco site. “All we’re doing is allowing the public debate to occur and the feasibility evaluation to occur.

“I do promise you that if the 12 months are up and the conditions are not met, the stacks will go down. There will be no extensions of this 12-month period.”

Those conditions include a long list of fundraising, organization and legal requirements. Puga originally estimated it would cost $14 million spread out over years to stabilize and maintain the tallest stack alone.

Meanwhile, Puga said, the site remediation will continue without delay toward the 2015 date when the job is done and the property can be sold for development.

The old plans for the remediation of the 400-acre site spanning the I-10 freeway called for covering a significant portion west of the interstate with an asphalt cap that would allow for industrial and commercial development of the site.

Under the plan Puga unveiled, the site would be capped with five feet of clean soil to allow for the commercial and residential development laid out in the city’s new master plan.

The black-slag-filled Parker Brothers Arroyo running through the property to the Rio Grande wasn’t included in the old remediation plan at all.

The new plan calls for the slag to be removed and buried elsewhere on the Asarco site and for restoring the arroyo so it will carry unpolluted runoff to the river.

Puga said those and other planned changes in the original remediation plan will have to be approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The more aggressive clean-up of the Asarco site would add $12 million to the remediation budget, an increase of 25 percent.

$14.5 million from sales

Puga said that would be paid for out of the $14.5 million he expects to recover from the sale of salvaged equipment, buildings and metals, including copper and gold left at the 130-year-old site.

“That will more than cover the shortfall,” Puga said.

Engineer Jeffery L. Bauguss, partner-in-charge of the demolition consulting firm, ERM, said other changes in the plans for the site include the preservation of Asarco’s original administration building, an adobe structure built in 1880 with two-foot-thick walls, and the brick electric powerhouse.

“There are unique pieces of heavy equipment used to generate electricity that we think is part of America’s industrial heritage,” Bauguss said. “We are caretaking that building and equipment to leave it on site.”

Other artifacts will be donated to El Paso’s Museum of History.

“Lastly there’s a tremendous trove of documents,” he said. “Asarco did a very good job of archiving engineering drawings, historical documents, photographs and maps.”

Those materials, together with a 1906 deed to a mine that Mexican President Porfirio Diaz signed over to Asarco, have gone to UTEP.

“We’ve also made a cash donation to the university so they can archive the materials in perpetuity,” Bauguss said.

Stacks debate

But most of the people in the audience were there for what is likely to be the beginning a months-long debate and tug-of-war over the fate of the stacks erected decades ago to disperse Asarco’s emissions for 100 miles.

The main stack stands 828 feet tall, according to an engineering document. The older stack, measures 610 feet in height.

Until three weeks ago, Puga’s mind was on little else but the demolition of the stacks in February.

Then, he heard from restaurateur Robert Ardovino and Gary Sapp, a vice president with Hunt Cos., who were organizing an effort to stop that demolition and to save the stacks.

He said his decision to grant the delay has cost him credibility in the El Paso community, especially with the “Get the Lead Out” organizers.

But, once 50 to 60 people, including elected officials and high-level business people, contacted him to urge a moratorium, he could do little else but go along with them, he said.

Carlos Rodriguez, a member of the Ex-Asarco Employees, argued with Puga about the pollution on the site, not just arsenic but deadly PCBs and unknown remnants of hazardous wastes burned illegally in the furnaces.

Puga conceded there is chromium and other previously unknown hazardous materials on the site, but he said it has been searched for the military waste that Rodriguez and other workers have said is there.

It wasn’t found on the ground or under the ground or confirmed in any documentation, Puga said.

Sierra Club leader Bill Addington charged that hundreds of rail shipments of radioactive and chemical wastes were illegally burned and set up the stack at Asarco over 9 years, but that the federal government still will not release the details.

Building homes on the site will be a big mistake, he warned.

Artist and photographer, Peter Svarzbein, said, “The smoke stacks are probably a lot of things to a lot of people.

“I think that by saving that it sort of shows a certain thoughtfulness of a city that can take something that was negative and reuse it as something positive into the future.”

Ardovino struck a similar note, saying, “I think this was the worst and the best thing El Paso has to offer.

“How do you ignore it and tear it down?”

El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder can be reached at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or by phone at (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.