Peggy McNeil: Asarco stacks: Stay or go?

By Peggy McNeil \ Guest columnist | El Paso Times

The main reason why the Asarco smokestacks must be demolished is that both stacks are polluted and pose a danger to the health and safety of citizens. The second reason is that to safely keep the stacks standing would require millions of dollars in perpetuity and result in millions of lost tax revenue.

In the public meeting in 2009, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) presented the plan to remediate the Asarco site. Demolition of structures, including the smokestacks, was the first item on the list.

Why were the stacks not considered for preservation by James Sher, the TCEQ engineer who authored the remediation plan? He wrote that the stacks by 2009 had not been properly maintained and the accelerating deterioration will pose a direct hazard to the public.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club regarded the stacks as “toxic waste” in their public comments to the Department of Justice, Washington D.C.

There is also precedent for demolition of the Asarco stacks as part of remediation of other sites in both Tacoma, Wash., and Omaha, Neb. In both cases, the stacks were demolished.

We talked with the onsite manager in Tacoma, Ms. Leslie Rose. She asks, “Why would you want to leave the stacks as a liability for future generations? Controlled demolition is safer than leaving the stacks up and not properly maintaining them. An uncontrolled, unplanned failure of the stacks could be catastrophic and end up killing people.”

However, after some interest was expressed to leave the polluted Asarco stacks standing, the trustee, Mr. Roberto Puga, hired an independent firm to do a study which calculated the cost to stabilize the 826-foot stack to be $6 million up front, plus maintenance totaling $14 million over 50 years. Later, it was estimated that another $4 million would be required to prevent toppling during high winds. That does not include the cost to rid the stacks of pollutants.

It is clear in a Feb. 8 letter from the executive director of the TCEQ, Zak Covar, responding to questions from Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, that complete costs of cleanup of the stacks have still not been completely quantified.

Cost of demolition of the two stacks is estimated to be $1 million.

Interested groups have had from 2009 until a deadline of Dec. 4, 2012, to present a plan to preserve the stacks to the trustee which will meet the engineering and remediation requirements of the trustee, the TCEQ and the EPA. No one has done so, even after the deadline was extended twice.

Unable to raise the millions required, one group turned to the El Paso City Council to get the city taxpayers to fund the purchase and preservation of the stacks. Wisely, the council voted against it.

It is disturbing that Mayor John Cook, city Reps. Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega, along with Rodríguez, are still working to stop the demolition of the stacks even after the Dec. 4, 2012 deadline has passed and the City Council has voted “no” to funding stack remediation.

Rodríguez revealed in an interview that he has approached the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to seek funding. In his letter to Covar, he asked what would prevent the city from buying the site. Byrd, Ortega and Cook –without informing City Council — used city funds to hire an outside attorney to provide another opinion on the authority of the trustee.

We, who support stack demolition, request that all our politicians and citizens respect the trustee’s deadline, abide by the vote of City Council and start supporting the positive work of Mr. Puga to remediate the Asarco site.

Peggy McNeil is an El Pasoan and a member of the “Stacks Down for Safety.”