Cost to preserve ex-Asarco chimney grows

By Chris Roberts – El Paso Times

The Asarco smokestacks can be seen towering above fog one morning. (Times file photo)

The fate of the tallest Asarco smokestack — an El Paso symbol of both economic growth and toxic pollution — could be decided today when the City Council decides whether to proceed with a plan to buy it and some of the surrounding land.

However, it appears the price tag for preventing the imminent demolition of that 826-foot smelter chimney is growing despite impassioned work by members of Save the Stacks and others to keep it standing.

“We found a serious structural issue with the stack,” Roberto Puga, the man in charge of cleaning up the site and then selling it, said Monday.

Puga said an engineer contracted by Project Navigator, his employer, found that a required building-code analysis showed a 90 mph wind sustained for 3 seconds could cause a catastrophic failure. That could signal collapse.

A similar problem on a smaller chimney in another area required rehabilitation that cost about $5 million, Puga said.

“He raised a legitimate concern and we’ll analyze it,” said Geoffrey Wright, Save the Stacks president. “But the stack is 50 years old and it doesn’t show signs of any stress like that.”

Wright said the group recently received the report and spoke with Puga and others about the specifics on Monday.

The stack’s 600-foot neighbor, apparently, will be demolished. Robert Ardovino, a Save the Stacks founder, has said the group wanted to save both, but would be happy if it could save the tallest one with the Asarco lettering.

If only the smaller one is demolished, Puga said, there will be little or no cost savings from the more than $1 million price tag to drop both of them.

Demolition plans, which Puga previously agreed to delay for a year and then another month, will proceed on Dec. 4 for both stacks if his conditions are not met.

When the idea to protect the landmarks first arose, Puga told supporters there would be significant obstacles including an engineering inspection and a plan to remove the trust’s liability for toxic contamination and/or chimney collapse.

“He dictated to us what our responsibilities are going to have to be to prove to him that we are serious about saving the stacks,” Ardovino said. “We feel we’ve done what he asked us to do.”

The group’s engineering study concluded that the “design strength was found to be higher than the demand for both the (outer) shell and (inner) liner along the length of the structures for wind and seismic loadcombinations.”

Puga’s concerns about persistent high winds were based on another test he said was required but not included in the group’s study.

The price tag for saving the stack also appeared to grow last week when Puga said real estate consultants told him interest in purchasing the land was based on smokestack demolition. Because the surrounding land could be rendered “unmarketable” if the stack remains, he said, the city also would have to purchase that 153 acres at a cost of about $10 million.

“We don’t think a private developer is going to want to take on the liability of building underneath the stacks,” Puga said.

And a 2-year-old study conducted for the trust indicated it would cost $14 million over a 50-year period to operate, maintain and insure the stacks. A Save the Stacks study found it would cost about $3.9 million for repairing the stack and doing the required environmental cleanup.

Ardovino said those costs, unlike the Project Navigator study, are based on pricing every nut and bolt that would require attention or replacement.

On Monday, Ardovino said the group had received estimates of about $8,000 per year for maintenance and about $40,000 per year for insurance. That would bring the 50-year cost to about $6.3 million.

Ardovino and city Rep. Susie Byrd have said Puga is changing the rules at the last minute, particularly with the $10 million land-purchase requirement. Puga said the group took so long to submit a plan that it doesn’t have time to make the necessary adjustments.

“A lot of us have been putting in a whole lot of work in in the last year,” Wright said.

He said Puga has generally been “accommodating,” but added, “Every time we do something, he comes up with another reason why it’s not right.”

City Rep. Steve Ortega said he would like the stacks to remain standing, but added that $14 million — using the group’s estimate for long-term costs and repair and the trust’s price for the 153 acres — is “unacceptable.” He said he thought the city’s financial support could come in a competition for the city’s public arts money, which would be substantially less.

“The Save the Stacks effort has been admirable,” Ortega said. “But at the end of the day, Puga makes the rules and we have to play by those rules.”
Puga said his hands are tied in many cases. The court order creating the trust — part of a bankruptcy agreement with Asarco that provided $52 million for remediation — does not allow him to give the stacks away or to use the money for anything other than cleanup.

He said he is legally bound to get the most money he can for material left on site and, ultimately, the land. Those additional funds are being used for the cost of remediation, which has reached about $70 million, he said.

Another requirement, Puga said, is that any money left over be redistributed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“They (Save the Stacks) should have gone into this with the full knowledge that this was a monumental endeavor,” Puga said. “Because the consequences (of collapse and contamination) could be extremely bad, it should be a hard process.”

Chris Roberts may be reached at; 546-6136.