Downtown El Paso meeting will detail plan to demolish Asarco smokestacks

By Marty Schladen / El Paso Times

As they prepare to drop the massive, contaminated Asarco smokestacks to the dusty desert floor sometime in April, officials in charge of the site’s cleanup want the public to turn out later this month to discuss the plans.

Among the more dramatic steps they plan to take will be to briefly close Interstate 10 and Paisano Drive, create a “water-fog system,” and erect earthen barriers to stop dust and debris.

The meeting to discuss the demolition is slated for 6 to 7 p.m. Feb. 26 in the auditorium at the El Paso Main Library, 501 N. Oregon St., Roberto Puga, the trustee in charge of cleaning up the site, said Thursday.

Whether to knock down the stacks has has generated controversy in recent months. But after the drive to preserve them proved unsuccessful in December, attention has turned to how to demolish them, and how to do so safely.

For more than a century, the American Smelting and Refining Co. processed metals such as lead, copper and zinc on the site, just west of Downtown along the Rio Grande.

By 1969, El Paso’s air had Texas’ highest concentrations of lead, which can harm almost every system in the body, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Public health officials also are concerned about the tons of the toxins arsenic and cadmium produced at the site.

Lead dust can be especially dangerous, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says demolition is a particularly good way to stir it up. So when the 826-foot big stack at Asarco is demolished, it will probably stir up a toxic cloud.

“That’s what happens when you bring these down; there’s going to be a lot of dust and fine particles,” said William Hargrove, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Management at the University of Texas at El Paso. Hargrove has been coordinating UTEP scientific advisers to the Asarco demolition project.

Puga said crews cleaning the site will take elaborate measures to control the dust.

“The site will be prepared by constructing earthen barriers along the sides of the fall zones and the installation of a water fog system, which mitigates dust migration,” Puga said Thursday in an email. “The earthen barriers physically stop dust and debris, and the water fog absorbs dust particles, causing them to fall to the ground.”

Also, he said, people will be kept well away from the site. I-10 and Paisano Drive will be closed for 15 to 30 minutes, and the demolition probably will take place on a weekend morning to minimize traffic snarls.

Air-quality monitors will be installed around the site to determine whether the measures are effective, Hargrove said. The UTEP professor added that he wanted to review the demolition plan when more details are released later this month, but that based on what Puga has said so far, “they certainly sound reasonable and effective.”

If things go according to plan, early April will see two of the most massive demolition projects in the city’s history –the Asarco stacks and City Hall. But Hargrove said the howling winds that herald spring’s arrival in the high desert could thwart those plans.

“They don’t want to do it on a windy day,” he said, explaining that would limit workers’ ability to control dust clouds.

Engineers can’t control the weather, but they say they’ll control how the Asarco stacks fall.

Puga’s team plans to drop them on their sides.

“The technique involves placing an explosive charge at the base of the stacks,” he said. “The charge is placed so that it only creates an opening in the stacks, on the side facing the direction the stack is to fall. The resulting opening causes an instability in the stack, which allows gravity to topple the structure to the ground.

“It is very similar to how a tree is taken down, other than using an axe to cut a notch at the base of the tree, we will use explosives to blow out the ‘notch.’ ”

Once the stacks are down, metal in them will be recycled and concrete will be crushed and used as fill on the site, Puga said.

The demolition is part of a $52 million remediation, which is expected to be complete by 2015. Puga said he hopes to sell the site the next year.

The city’s master plan calls for mixed-use, high-density development on the property.

A facility such as a soccer stadium, racetrack or amusement park might be built on the part west of I-10, where hazardous materials from the entire Asarco property will be landfilled, Puga said. The part east of the freeway could be used for residential development, he said.

Toppling the massive stacks is sure to be spectacular.

“We are working with our neighbors to see what safe and clear vantage points may be made available,” Puga said. “Mount Cristo Rey would be a good vantage point. We will have a map at the February 26 public meeting that will indicate good viewing areas, for those interested.”

Engineers also will be on hand to describe the project in more detail and to answer the public’s questions.

Marty Schladen may be reached at; 546-6127.