Asarco’s future: Bicycle paths envisioned for arroyo cleared of slag

by Chris Roberts \ El Paso Times


Artist’s rendering of what Parker Brothers Arroyo could look like after the ongoing restoration at the Asarco Smelter site. The arroyo will be restored so it can accommodate bicycle paths and funnel stormwater (Courtesy of Project Navigator LTD)

Standing at the edge of a yawning canyon in West El Paso on the northern edge of what once was the Asarco smelter site, Walter Boyle described the massive excavation below.

Workers operating heavy machinery have removed nearly 600,000 tons of dirt and slag, an iron-rich smelting byproduct dumped into Parker Brothers Arroyo during decades of the smelter’s operation. The molten slag created volcanic rivers that glowed in the night, said Boyle, who watched them as a youth.

Later in life, Boyle took a job at the smelter.

After the company went into bankruptcy in 2005 and agreed to fund a $52 million cleanup, Boyle was employed by Project Navigator. He is now that company’s on-site manager, overseeing a cleanup designed to remove or contain more than 100 years of contamination.

The cleanup is on schedule for a 2015 completion, said Roberto Puga, the Project Navigator site trustee. It is a daunting task.

Slag completely filled the stretch of arroyo running approximately from Paisano Drive east to the railroad tracks. Now, a dirt path is visible along the bottom where stormwater running off the Franklin Mountains once flowed freely into the Rio Grande.

A giant tanker in another section of the excavation sprays water on dust stirred by a front-end loader scraping boulders where a high-tech landfill is planned.

The large hole represents an end to more than a century of history. It also will allow a new beginning.

The landfill will hold 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated material — everything from furnace bricks to PCB-laced soil — removed from the site.

It is designed to isolate contaminants and blend in with the natural surroundings. Parker Brothers Arroyo will be partially restored so it can accommodate bike trails and, once again, safely funnel stormwater.

Funding for the Parker Brothers Arroyo restoration mostly comes from $14 million gleaned from the sale of equipment and material on the site, Puga said.

Thundering machines and stout buildings used to transform chunks of raw ore into pure metals that fueled an industrializing America are nearly all gone.

On Friday, a hydraulic machine chopped away at the concrete foundation of a building where trains carrying tons of ore once unloaded. After it is razed, only two historic structures and a few outbuildings will remain.

The iconic smokestacks — the tallest at 826 feet is emblazoned with the Asarco name — still stand. Their fate has not been decided.

When it became clear that some El Pasoans had an emotional and historical connection to the stacks, Puga pushed the planned demolition back about a year. A group called “Save the Stacks” is now working against a November deadline.

When he postponed the deadline, Puga said there would be no restoration until a state-certified engineer ensures the stacks are structurally sound. And the group must find, or create, an entity that will take responsibility for the stacks, including insuring and maintaining them, in perpetuity.

“It really is that engineering study that is the key,” said Robert Ardovino, one of the people leading the preservation group. Without a positive finding, the effort will not proceed, he said.

“We are in the process of doing some fundraising to pay for this next step,” Ardovino said.

The engineering study is expected to cost between $60,000 and $80,000, he said, and the group hopes to begin the study within about 30 days.

He said new people are joining the group, and he challenged those who want the stacks demolished to “open up their visions on what this thing can be.”

“Most people who want it gone say, ‘It’s ugly and we don’t like it,’ ” he said. “But it’s a tower that can be made to look different and still retain its historical significance.”

A group of former Asarco employees who have monitored the remediation are split on whether to preserve the stacks, said Verónica Carbajal, a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney who represents the group of ex-workers.

The former employees, with specialized knowledge of the smelter’s inner workings, have been vocal about testing areas where they remember sloppy storage of toxic materials and possible dumping, both legal and illegal.

“We’re not finding anything, no big oil spills or anything like that,” Puga said.

Traces of PCBs, a highly toxic chemical once used in electrical equipment, were found near a storage shed. Soil excavated from that area will be deposited in the landfill, he said.

Contamination found, so far, is what was expected, Puga said.

Nonetheless, the former employees, some of whom suffer from unexplained illnesses, are wary.

“Our experts are still looking at the plan,” Carbajal said. “We’ll be looking at the (soil) sampling a lot more closely in the next few weeks. We’ve talked extensively about the depth and location of the samples.”

Furnace bricks that might have been sold for recycling or other uses will be buried in the landfill, Puga said. Former employees argued that those bricks were exposed to hazardous material, including waste illegally incinerated at the facility in recent years.

“As a result of that, we believe other communities will not be impacted by any contamination that will be found on the bricks,” Carbajal said.

And the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to pay for an independent technical adviser that will examine a number of cleanup issues, she said.

The adviser will evaluate plans to treat a large plume of contaminated groundwater under the site, what kind of cap on that tainted groundwater would most protect human health, and the design of the landfill.

Evaluations are to be completed by July 22.

Former workers also have found some relief, she said. In May, an “Occupational and Environmental Medicine Conference” turned up doctors who will be conducting a health study of former employees. Carbajal said Asarco workers who want to be part of the study should get in touch with RioGrande Legal Aid.

Another issue that remains unresolved is whether residential development will be allowed on Asarco land east of Interstate 10.

More soil testing is planned in that area, he said.

“We need to find out if there is contamination and if so, how much is there and how much it will cost to dig it up and remove it,” Puga said.

If the remediation is too costly, the land will be used for commercial or industrial purposes, just like the land west of I-10, he said.

Despite the stack demolition delay, additional testing and other issues, “We’re still on schedule,” Puga said.

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

More information

  • To find out more about saving the Asarco smokestacks send a message to info@savethestacks.org or visit the group’s Facebook page at http:// on.fb.me/KHS6lY
  • Former Asarco workers interested in the health study can contact Texas RioGrande Legal Aid at 1331 Texas Ave.; or call 585-5100 or 585-5107.