El Paso City Council declines to buy Asarco stacks: Reps back preservation, but not using tax money for it

By Chris Roberts \ El Paso Times

A majority of El Paso City Council members made it clear Tuesday that they will not spend any significant amount of taxpayers’ money to preserve the city’s emblematic Asarco smokestack.

On a 5-3 vote, the council rejected a resolution authored by the Save the Stacks group that would have allowed the city to purchase both smokestacks and a small parcel of surrounding land.

In a follow-up 5-4 vote — with Mayor John Cook breaking the tie — the council approved a measure stating its support for saving the stacks if the city has “no financial obligation.”

That means Save the Stacks has until Dec. 4 to find another method of meeting the conditions set by Asarco trustee Roberto Puga, the man in charge of cleaning up the site and selling it.

Puga said the 826-foot-tall stack and its shorter neighbor smokestack will be demolished in February or March if the group does not meet the conditions.

“There has been a lot of misinformation,” said Robert Ardovino, a Save the Stacks founder, after the votes. “It (the vote rejecting the resolution) shows there’s confusion about the numbers and the stability of the structure.”

Ardovino said the stacks are no longer polluting and would be a monument “built on 100 years of sweat and tears.”

The major sticking point has been the cost of saving the stack with the Asarco lettering, which apparently would be the tallest monument in the country. Ardovino and others have disputed the $14 million cost estimate provided by Puga to insure, repair and maintain the stacks over a 50-year period.

Ardovino says preservation would cost much less.

The $14 million estimate was calculated about two years ago, and other potential costs have been added since then, although Save the Stacks members dispute the amounts and the rationale for including those costs.

Last week, Puga sent a letter to city representatives and others stating that his consultants found some interest in purchasing the land, but only if the stacks are demolished. He said liability concerns could make the land unmarketable.

Puga, who said he is required to get the best deal in support of the cleanup, added a requirement that the city purchase 153 acres surrounding the stack at an estimated price of $10 million.

Save the Stacks advocates point to an engineering study commissioned by the group stating that the stacks are sound and can withstand both the seismic activity and wind blasts typical in the area.

“The structural analysis shows there’s no chance of a catastrophic failure,” Ardovino said.

Puga’s engineers examined the group’s engineering study and, while complimenting the report, said a test had been omitted that showed a significant structural problem. That problem — a weakness when exposed to 90-mph winds for 3 seconds or more — could cause collapse, Puga said.

But the example provided by Puga’s consultant of a similar problem in a smaller stack in Florida was the result of a hurricane, said Geoffrey Wright, Save the Stacks president, in an earlier interview. And that stack might have cracked, but it did not collapse, he added.

“An important part of El Paso’s heritage is being held hostage,” Wright told council members.

Nonetheless, an engineer contracted by Save the Stacks told council members that cracking was possible under those conditions and estimated the cost of a retrofit at between $1.5 million and $2.5 million. Puga said a smaller stack with a similar problem cost $5 million to retrofit.

Whatever the cost, council members showed little inclination to dedicate any city resources to the project.

City Rep. Courtney Niland said she was sympathetic to the cause but felt it should have been included in the quality-of-life bond issue approved by voters earlier this month. Niland — the Asarco site is in her district — also mentioned an estimated annual loss to the city of $5.5 million in property-tax revenue if the city buys the land.

In response to a question from Niland, El Paso City Manager Joyce Wilson said the city would have to take on additional debt to fund the preservation project.

“We don’t have the monies, and we’re taking on a tremendous amount of debt,” Niland said. And she said she promised her constituents that the site would be cleaned up by 2015, which is the deadline Puga set.

“That’s a promise you made to this community, and it has to be done,” Niland told Puga.

City Rep. Susie Byrd said Puga had broken his commitments by adding conditions at the last minute.

As recently as Oct. 4, she said, Puga confirmed an agreement with Save the Stacks that if it met certain criteria, he would cooperate with restoration efforts. Byrd and Save the Stacks members have said the requirement to purchase $10 million of surrounding land was changing the rules.

“You won’t honor that (original) commitment?” Byrd asked Puga.

Puga said he had only recently received the group’s proposed resolution, which was prepared without his company’s input. He said he responded quickly, within two days.

Of the land purchase requirement, he added, “fall zones gobble up a huge percentage of the smelter site property.”

“I don’t think I’ve gone back on anything I’ve said,” Puga said.

City Rep. Steve Ortega questioned whether Puga could sell the stacks to someone who was not the highest bidder.

Although Puga earlier said the terms of the court order that created the trust require him to get the highest value for the land and that all the money must go to remediation, he said Tuesday the language was not perfectly clear.

Puga said he has some discretion if he can broker a deal that benefits the trust.

Nonetheless, cost and liability concerns persisted among council members.

“I’m really uncomfortable with the liability,” said city Rep. Dr. Michiel Noe. “I fear potential claims, litigation down the road. I think, at this time, it would be a bad idea.”

Daniel Arellano, a former Asarco employee who is ill, said the workers’ health claims had been settled in bankruptcy court for “pennies on the dollar.”

He supports preservation.

“If you stand underneath them, they are tall. They are awesome,” Arellano said. “Are we going to build something better there? I don’t know.”

He urged Puga to lower the cost of the site.

“It’s the norm in bankruptcy court to pay pennies on the dollar,” Arellano said.

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

Source: http://www.elpasotimes.com/ci_22074739/el-paso-city-council-declines-buy-stacks-reps?source=most_viewed