Deadline to save Asarco stacks: Resolution asks for El Paso City Council rescue

By Daniel Borunda \ El Paso Times

An artist rendering of how the Asarco stack would look with “El Paso,” painted over the current Asarco lettering, as well as how the stack looks from Western Playland. Members of the Save the Stacks group held a press conference on how plans to save the stacks are underway. (Ruben R Ramirez/El Paso Times)

Faced with an approaching deadline, activists fighting to save the Asarco smokestacks are urging the El Paso City Council to take over the towers and spare them from demolition when a resolution goes to council next week.

A proposed resolution written by the Save the Stacks group is scheduled be placed on the council’s agenda at Tuesday’s meeting. The deadline to have a plan to avoid demolition is Dec. 4.

Members of the Save the Stacks group, former Asarco workers, state Sen. José Rodríguez and County Judge Veronica Escobar gathered Wednesday at a news conference on a dirt lot at the shuttered smelter that was once a vital part of border industry.

The taller of two stacks — at 826 feet — would be turned into a memorial to the smelter’s workers and save what preservationists describe as an symbol of the good and bad in El Paso’s history, proponents said.

“These stacks are El Paso’s history. The stacks represent the hundreds of families whose lives were bettered through hard work here on the border,” said Robert Ardovino, a Save the Stacks founder.

“We must remain straight, strong and solid and tall in support of our history,” said Ardovino, who grew up in the nearby Kern Place neighborhood.

Ardovino pointed out that other cities, such as Cleveland and San Antonio, have turned industrial sites into decorative landmarks and that the Asarco smokestack is taller than the St. Louis Gateway Arch, which is 630 feet tall.

The remediation process will clean the Asarco site whether the two stacks are kept or destroyed.

Stacks proponents said that the city would not take over the entire Asarco property but just a part with the smokestack.

A major point of debate is the cost to save the orange-and-white striped smokestack.

A trust overseeing the cleanup of the Asarco area estimated it would cost $14 million to repair and maintain the structure over a 50-year period, but Save the Stacks estimates the cost would be $3.9 million.

Save the Stacks has raised more than $50,000 in an effort to save the structure and hired an engineering firm that conducted an analysis of the stacks last month.

“Our analysis and data show the stacks are safe and sound,” said engineer Javier M. Carlin of HKN Engineers, which was hired by the Save the Stacks group to perform the structural analysis.

Roberto Puga, the trustee in charge of cleaning up and selling the Asarco site, said in an email last week that that his trust duties include taking any appropriate action “to maximize the sale price of the property to help pay for the remediation and cleanup costs.”

He wrote that several parties interested in the Asarco land are not interested in purchasing the site if the smokestacks remain.

If the city wants to buy the smokestacks, Puga wrote, it will have to pay a price “at least equal to what the Trustee could have received from other interested parties who were willing to purchase the Property without the stacks.”

The letter also says that the city stands to lose an estimated $5 million to $5.5 million in tax revenues if it buys the land.

Save the Stacks proponents argue that the trust has the authority to deed the stacks to the city.

The fight to preserve the smokestacks is personal for Dan Arellano, 58, a third-generation worker at the Asarco smelter.

Asarco was a good-paying job in a low-wage city, but workers were concerned about the pollution that often drifted south toward impoverished neighborhoods in Mexico, said Arellano, who has a form of leukemia.

Arellano said the smokestacks should stay as a memorial to El Paso’s industrial history, the struggle to shut down Asarco and the fight against pollution.

“We want this to stand as a monument to the workers,” Arellano said. “The men who got sick and died. They want it to go away, to wipe it clean. This is a symbol. This is the smoking gun.”

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Daniel Borunda may be reached at; 546-6102. Follow him on Twitter @BorundaDaniel