Students divided on the future of Asarco site

By Jasmine Aguilera / The Prospector

A group of El Paso citizens now have one year to try to save the Asarco smokestacks.

Previously, demolition of the smelter was scheduled to be completed by early 2012. Instead, the Save the Stacks group is trying to raise enough private funding to keep the stacks up.

As controversial issues surrounding Asarco have been a hot-button topic for decades in the sun city, the question of what to do with the remaining smokestacks has many El Paso and UTEP community members divided.

“I think tearing it down would mean justice for the people who were negatively affected by the smelter,” said Roger Canales, freshman education major. “I don’t think saving the stacks is a good idea at all, even if they have been in El Paso for a really long time.”

For some students, while Asarco represents an era of bad history in El Paso, some say it is, nevertheless, a historical landmark that should be preserved.

“The stacks have been in El Paso for a long time. I don’t think we should all be so quick to dismiss the option of preserving them,” said Christian Monzon, junior digital media production major. “I know most students think it’s a better idea to just tear them down, but I think because of how long the stacks have been here, and because of the economic effects the plant had on El Paso, we should seriously consider keeping them up.”

History aside, for many the pain and struggles Asarco brought to many of the workers and the community is enough reason to tear down the smokestacks.

“Asarco didn’t do any good to El Paso,” said Isai Saenz, sophomore psychology major. “I have family members that have been in El Paso for generations and they say that they never saw anything but sickness come from the plant. I think tearing it down would avenge those who got sick because of it.”

The decision to delay the demolition of the stacks was made by Robert Puga, Asarco site custodial trustee.

“I don’t really have an opinion on whether or not the stacks should stay up,” Puga said. “I just want to know that it would be safe if it stayed up. It should be understood that the bar for the folks wanting to save the stacks is very high.”

The trust in charge of the demolition of the smokestacks created a list of four conditions the group would have to meet within a year in order to preserve the stacks.

One, the group has to provide a legal entity that can take possession of the stacks. Two, the legal entity in possession of the stacks must prove that it has the financial strength to support their ownership. According to Puga, it costs about $14 million in the long term to support the largest stack alone. The cost to tear down the stacks would be about $10 million.

The third condition is that the entity must be able to provide the trust with insurance. Four, the entity has to get a certified structural engineer to prove that the stacks are strong enough to remain on the site without causing damage to others.

“The trust will promise that 12 months from now, if these conditions are not met to our satisfaction, the stacks will come down and no further delay will be tolerated,” Puga said.

According to Puga, Gary Sapp and Robert Ardovino from the Save the Stacks group were able to gather 50 supporters, and for that reason they were granted a one-year moratorium.

“A lot of people want to see the stacks stay up because they think they have historical significance in El Paso, but I don’t see it that way,” Canales said. “I think Asarco has a history of making people sick and that is enough reason to tear them down.”

Puga’s original plan for the stacks was to only conserve 15 feet of the tallest stack and create a monument that included the depiction of the protesters, who were instrumental in having the plant closed.

“If the stacks had positive memories associated with them, then by all means keep them, but that is not the case,” said Christine Favela, forensic science major. “They’re historic for polluting El Paso and making people sick. If it doesn’t serve a purpose anymore, then I think they should just be torn down.”

Jasmine Aguilera may be reached at prospector@utep.edu.