No deal in sight to save El Paso’s Asarco smokestack by deadline

By Chris Roberts \ EL PASO TIMES

The ASARCO plant from a 2006 aerial photo. (Times file photo/Rudy Gutierrez)

On the eve of a deadline to present a plan that would allow the emblematic Asarco smokestack to remain standing, there appeared to be no deal lined up that would beat the clock.

Roberto Puga, the trustee in charge of cleaning up the former smelter site and selling it, said he was not aware of a plan that would meet conditions he had set that needed to be in place by today’s deadline.

However, Robert Ardovino, a founder of Save the Stacks, said Monday night he was still hopeful. He believes the 826-foot stack could be rehabilitated, maintained and insured over a 50-year period for less than $4 million, which he says Puga could supply.

Puga maintains that he has little leeway when it comes to spending the $52 million allocated for remediation and the nearly $20 million he has raised by selling material and equipment from the site on El Paso’s West Side.

Puga says that the court order creating the trust requires the money be spent on remediation, not restoration, and that he must sell the stacks, land and anything else for the best price he can get.

Ardovino also points to a resolution passed by the El Paso City Council last week stating its support for saving the stack as long as there was no financial obligation to the city.

But Puga said Monday that he does not expect to extend the deadline. “I just don’t see it happening,” he said in a telephone interview.

Puga had planned to demolish the stacks earlier this year, but gave Save the Stacks a one-year extension. After El Paso Mayor John Cook requested it, Puga extended that deadline another month.

A letter received by Puga on Friday from Geoffrey Wright, Save the Stacks president, urges the trustee to work with the city to find common ground.

It mentions a lack of access to the site could make it hard to sell to commercial interests and that leaving the stack up will be cheaper and speed the remediation process.

Puga said he is working with the city of El Paso and the Texas Department of Transportation to build roads connecting to the site.

He said keeping one stack up will be neither less expensive nor hasten the remediation process.

Even if the tall stack is saved, he said, the smaller one will have to come down and the $1.4 million demolition price tag will remain the same.

“Right now it’s a critical bottleneck in the remediation,” Puga said.

Wright’s letter also suggests that repair of a structural defect, identified by Puga and acknowledged by the group’s engineers, is not necessary.

“It has been in place nearly 50 years without so much as a single structural crack,” the letter states. “There is no evidence that this theoretical failure mode is an actual problem.”

Puga disagreed. “That statement is not only wrong, it is dangerous.”

Chris Roberts may be reached at; 546-6136. Follow him on Twitter @4estate