Smokestacks: Can’t afford preservation

El Paso Times Editorial Board

With a split vote, City Council made the tough decision not to purchase and preserve the iconic smokestacks and surrounding land on the old Asarco smelter site.

It was the correct decision not to make this multi-million-dollar investment. It comes at a time when the city has just taken on huge financial responsibilities. It has ordered $210 million in street repair certificates of obligation. And voters recently approved nearly one-half billion dollars in quality-of-life projects.

Also, there’s an important land-development issue – future property-tax income. Roberto Puga, the man in charge of cleaning up the site and selling it, said there is interest in purchasing the land, but only if the smokestacks are removed. The Asarco site is prime real estate located near Downtown and in an area ripe for business growth.

There are also safety and liability concerns if the city owned the smokestacks. Puga said a study showed that 90 mph winds for 3 seconds could collapse the stacks. A local Save the Stacks group said the study it commissioned found the stacks to be stable, pointing out they are no longer undergoing big temperature changes they long endured when smeltering was in process.

The 5-3 vote looks to have ended a valiant effort by Save the Stacks, which notes the taller, 826-foot stack would apparently be the tallest monument in the country.

And the smokestacks represent the 100-year history of the smelter that provided good-paying jobs. Asarco is credited with creating the first middle-class society in El Paso.

But El Paso’s growth was the death knell for the smelter that had been shuttered for more than a decade, followed by a failed move to re-open. Puga is working with a $52 million trust to clear the land for sale.

Keeping the smelter shuttered was a big issue here in the last decade. It was best that a polluting industry not reopen, especially since it is now located close to the center of the city.

Saving the two stacks then became an issue. Puga gave Save the Stacks one year to come up with a way to pay for preservation. That year ends Dec. 4. The plan is to bring the stacks down in February or March.

These stacks are of historical significance, but the cost of preserving them is high, and taxpayer money should not be used to do so.

City Council made the right decision. We have taken on much debt of late. Now is not the time to spend millions of dollars to keep two smokestacks on our horizon.