ASARCO smokestacks headed for demolition

By Genevieve Curtis – KFOX14

EL PASO, Texas —

The ASARCO smokestacks, which rise above the Sun City’s skyline 826 feet high, are symbolic for most El Pasoans and will more than likely be coming down in the next few months.

Council voted 5-3 Tuesday against a resolution to create a regional monument and preserve ASARCO’s smelter facility. In doing so, City Council members said they wouldn’t use tax dollars to “save the stacks.”

Roberto Puga, the trustee in charge of the property, cleaning it up and finding a new owner for the land, said he will proceed with plans to demolish the stacks.

“It’s important to be that this job be successful. What I define as successful is that at the end of the day I leave it behind in a condition where it is protective of the environment and that it has bright future in El Paso,” said Puga.

While some consider the stacks symbolic, El Pasoans hold drastically different views on what those stacks symbolize.

For some, they stand as a painful reminder of the toxic waste, pollution and poisons that desecrated many nearby neighborhoods.

They are a lingering symbol of the orange haze, drifting sulfur that left a distinct taste in the mouths of residents and the pungent smell that personified ASARCO’s nickname, “Smeltertown”

To many, the stacks represent ASARCO’s disregard for public health, the health of their workers and the environment. The plant’s pollution negatively affected the health of workers and all those who lived in the shadow of the stacks.

“I was a student at UTEP and I remember breathing in the sulfur, it was just awful,” said Peggy McNiel of West El Paso.

But for others, the stacks stand as a testament to the industrial spirit, the Sun City’s history and economic prosperity. Some see the towering chimneys as landmarks, historical markers and even iconic.

“It’s a monument worth it called a monument tomorrow … the tallest monument in the United States — is it worth it? I think it is,” said Robert Ardovino of Save the Stacks.

The smokestacks, the tallest in the world when they were built, have been hailed for their height, which towers over the St. Louis Arch, the Seattle Space Needle and the Washington Monument.

Nonprofit organization Save the Stacks has emerged to preserve the largest stack with the goal of honoring the city’s past and memorializing Smeltertown’s impact on the borderland.

Rep. Emma Acosta reflected on her own personal loss, to the smelter. “My grandfather died there and so did my uncle,” said Acosta.

However, Acosta said that the stacks serve as a reminder of El Paso’s past and the lessons learned about environmental standards and industrial responsibility.

Other community members said ASARCO’s imprint on the city is nothing to be proud of or erect a monument to honor its role in the city’s past.

“It’s a polluted smoke stack it should be regarded as such. It was built in 1966. This is not some historically grandiose building. This thing could be reproduced a thousand times over tomorrow. So this is a myth that they are putting before us,” said McNiel.

Puga is overseeing ASARCO’s property after the company went through one of the largest environmental bankruptcies in U.S. history. The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality put him in charge of Smeltertown, which according to studies still poses significant levels of toxins including lead and arsenic.

ASARCO, known as the American Smelting and Refining Co., paid $1.79 billion to settle claims for hazardous waste pollution at 80 sites in 20 states.

El Paso was its largest site.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control in the early 1970s found that more than half of the children living within a mile of the ASARCO site had levels of lead in their blood four times acceptable limit by today’s standards.

After Save the Stacks gained momentum, Puga agreed to hold off on plans to demolish the stacks for one year, provided the group could do two things. The first was to prove the stacks were structurally sound, and the second was to find a private or public entity that could purchase and take ownership of the land.

Save the Stacks came before Council on Tuesday, asking them to be that entity.

Puga said the land is priced at $10 million and he believes retrofitting the stacks to secure them and make them structurally sound could cost $5 million. In addition, the council had to consider the overwhelming liability as well as the ongoing maintenance costs of the structure which could be more than $4 million dollars a year. Also, it would cost an unknown amount to actually turn the stack itself into a monument, museum or otherwise.

“It’s a monumental task,” said Puga.

The stacks bear a hefty price tag and bring demanding needs if they are left up but some believe it’s worth the investment.

“A significant investment in a monument? No. A smoke stack yes. It’s no longer a smokestack. It’s a chimney and it can be made into a historic monument that’s the point,” said Ardovino.

At the very least, that would force the city to fork out $15 million in taxpayer dollars upfront.

“Do we have $15 million to spend?” asked Rep. Cortney Niland.

City Manager Joyce Wilson said it would require the city to issue debt to foot the estimated $15 million to acquire the land to gain control of the stacks.

“Why is it every time someone wants to save something, it falls on the taxpayer dollar?” asked Rep. Carl Robinson. “I have a real problem with that.”

Rep. Susie Byrd argued the only motion before council was a resolution to support the effort to save the stacks and didn’t require any financial commitment.

“It’s one thing to say you support something, it’s another to allocate the financial resources to do it,” said Rep. Steve Ortega.

Save the Stacks leaders George Wright and Robert Ardovino said their engineers found the largest stack could be retrofitted and secured for between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.

Ardovino felt the Council’s decision was based on “confusion.”

The council voted on a resolution making a commitment to the stacks’ preservation provided the city doesn’t have to spend any money. The vote tied, with Mayor John Cook breaking the tie in favor of the resolution.

The city gave its support without taking any action that could stop the demolition of the smokestacks.

It will be up to private entities, donors or Save the Stacks to buy the land.

“They are not willing to commit city dollars to the preservation of the stacks, which essentially leaves the stacks without an owner so I think I’m compelled to move forward. That being said if the city does have an interest and can put together a coalition, state funds, federal funds, I’ll definitely listen,” said Puga.

Rep. Eddie Holguin remained quiet during the smelter discussion but said he couldn’t help but notice the hypocrisy.

“Council spent over $1 million in fees and fighting trying to close down Asarco and now they want to spend million dollars to try and leave the stacks. Why did you spend millions of dollars of taxpayer dollars to get it shut down, torn down, and cleaned up and now they want to spend millions to leave it up, “said Holguin.

Ardovino was among those who pushed for the closure of the site but said that doesn’t erase its place in El Paso’s past and future.

“If you want to wipe this site clean you are wiping all those memories clean. You are wiping clean the fact that this site did a lot of harm to a lot of people and it did a lot of good to a lot of people that’s what the monument does,” said Ardovino.

Puga said he’s not against the stacks themselves; if the city wanted to purchase the land and keep the stacks, he would sell it to them or any other group with pockets deep enough.

“Something has to happen very quickly because our schedule has dropping the stacks in the first quarter,” Puga explained.

Some in the Save the Stacks group criticized trustee Puga accusing him of moving the benchmarks or goals they had to achieve when they got close to achieving them.

“To demonize Mr. Puga, which is what this group is doing, is absolutely reprehensible,” said McNeil.

Puga maintains he has no vested interest in the stacks. He was charged with the task of remediation of the site, to get the land up to TCEQ standards. But above and beyond that he has put for designs and suggestion for possible monuments or memorials that could be made out of the base of the stacks.

“I’ve lived this job for the last three years. I think about it all the time,” said Puga. “I spend a lot of time away from my family and home to get this job done,” he added.

Rep. Jose Rodriguez wrote a letter in favor of keeping the stacks but he has not identified any source of funding, state or otherwise.

For now, the plans for demolition of the stacks will continue unless someone with the cash can prevent the stacks from turning into dust.

“It comes down to that, I think the will of the people is out there,” said Ardovino.