City considers buying Asarco stacks

By Robert Gray \ El Paso Inc. staff writer

Melody Parra | Save the Stacks members.
Among those at the news conference were former Asarco employees, architects, historians and elected officials.

City Council will consider a proposal on Tuesday to acquire the two giant smokestacks on the former Asarco property and save them from demolition.

But the man in charge of the eventual sale of the property says the proposal is unacceptable.

Site trustee Roberto Puga told El Paso Inc. Wednesday he is not willing to sell only a small portion of the sprawling, 153-acre former Asarco property where the stacks are located.

If the city wants the stacks, he says, it’s going to have to buy the entire property west of Interstate 10 for an estimated $10 million.

Puga, who is guiding the cleanup of the polluted land, says the stacks are a liability and, if they remain standing, they will threaten the eventual sale of the property.

Community group Save the Stacks maintains the stacks are iconic monuments worth saving and Puga’s position jeopardizes their yearlong effort to save them from demolition.

“This stack is not just my history but personal history for many El Pasoans; not just personal history, but El Paso’s history; and not just El Paso’s history but its present and its future,” says local businessman Robert Ardovino, a founder of Save the Stacks.

Pressure is mounting on the group to find an entity to take responsibility for the stacks and maintain them by a Dec. 4 deadline.

If the deadline is not met, Puga says he will resume demolition – taking down the stacks in the first quarter of next year as originally planned.

A year ago, and at the urging of local citizens, Puga delayed the demolition of the stacks. He gave Save the Stacks one year to show it had the public support and finances to preserve the stacks, one at 828 feet and the other at 610 feet.

The group would have to show the old stacks are sound and find a group willing to maintain them and accept liability for them.

Competing studies

At a news conference Wednesday in a dusty lot on the former Asarco property with the smokestacks forming a backdrop, Save the Stacks announced the results of its $60,000 engineering study.

“This stack is strong, straight and solid,” Ardovino said.

The study by El Paso-based HKN Engineers was based on soil samples and a physical inspection of the stack conducted by Atlanta-based Industrial Access.

Engineer Javier Carlin of HKN says the stacks are sound and it would cost $3.9 million to maintain them over 50 years.

That differs from an earlier study undertaken by the trust that estimated it would cost $14 million to stabilize and maintain the stacks over a 50-year period.

Puga says his engineers are reviewing the new study, and he can’t yet comment on specifics.

“We have not concurred with those findings,” he says.

Carlin with HKN said their study differed from the trust’s study in some key ways.

First, Carlin says they had the benefit of a physical inspection of the stack that found it was in good condition. The earlier study did not include a physical inspection of the stack, Carlin says, and assumed it had degraded by 5 percent.

Second, Carlin says their study used seismic standards under the most recent, 2009 International Building Code, while the earlier study used the building code from 2003.

City Reps. Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd said Friday they would support the original resolution to acquire the stacks, but could not support spending millions to acquire the entire property.

“At this point Puga holds all of the cards,” says Ortega, who recently announced his run for mayor.

“I would like the stack to be saved, but I am extremely sensitive to the cost,” he says.

Bond dollars?

Earlier this month, voters approved a $473-million quality of life bond referendum. City Rep. Byrd says the city is just not prepared to spend more money right now.

“I’m going to push for the original resolution that the mayor put forward and not except the last minute wrinkle Puga put in this,” Byrd says.

The bonds include money for the construction of a “multi-purpose performing arts and entertainment facility,” estimated to cost $180 million.

That raises the question: Could City Council use the dollars set aside for the arena to purchase the former Asarco property and build “Asarco Stadium” there?

Byrd says, “No.”

Since the El Paso Downtown Plan was adopted in 2006, the city has planned to put the arena in Downtown to help revitalize the city core, according to Byrd.

“I wouldn’t want to veer off that goal,” she says.

Ortega agrees. “We will use the bond money for the arena in Downtown,” he says. “That is the way it was sold to the community and that is how we are going to do it.”

Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.