Robert Ardovino: Take the time to fully explore costs, hear voices of community on issue

By Robert Ardovino \ Guest columnist | El Paso Times

Roberto Puga, the Asarco site custodial trustee, has been steadfast in wanting to demolish the iconic stacks. A year ago, he agreed to postpone his decision until November, conditioned that an engineering analysis showed the stacks were structurally sound and safe.

None of his funds could be used for that analysis or any other costs related to preserving the stacks, which he estimated at more than $14 million. This figure, lacking any technical analysis, turned many El Pasoans against saving the stacks, despite an earlier poll showing nearly 70 percent supported their preservation.

The small nonprofit “Save the Stacks,” was formed and raised over $50,000 and hired a national engineering firm to conduct the inspection and analysis of the 826-foot taller stack.

Carried out in October, they found the stack was structurally sound and safe. Facing the November deadline to complete the final report, Mayor Cook intervened to secure a one-month extension, but now Puga placed new requirements: Providing detailed cost analysis for preservation and long-term maintenance, and identifying who would take on responsibility for the stacks indefinitely.

Working closely with our engineering firm, we completed his requirements. Preservation and maintenance costs came in at just over $3 million spread over 50 years — substantially less than Mr. Puga’s estimate. With interested city leaders, we helped draft a resolution proposing the city take ownership of the stacks.

During hours of Council deliberation on the resolution in late November, Mr. Puga strenuously argued against the findings of our engineering and cost analysis. He added yet another requirement — that the city pay $10 million “in fair value” for the stacks and related property.

City Council balked at such expenditure and voted against the full resolution. However, they approved supporting preservation of the stacks, asking Mr. Puga to work with city and state leaders to find an acceptable solution.

A December El Paso Times editorial noted, “There are huge differences of opinion on cost factors involved, and who pays. We urge Asarco Trustee Roberto Puga to slow down and further explore options … Let’s take some time to further explore the actual price it would take to preserve the stacks. Then let’s go from there. Because, once the stacks are felled, they’ll be gone forever.”

Puga has remained adamant the stacks be demolished, saying he had no authority under the trust agreement to cede any of the property to the city or defray any costs for keeping the stacks.

Legal analysis by the city released recently shows otherwise. He has wide latitude and discretion, authorizing him “to sell, transfer, or otherwise dispose of all or part of such properties,” including giving the stacks to the city.

Now or Gone — Mr. Puga and those agencies who back the Asarco Trust Settlement, EPA and the TCEQ, need to hear from our political leadership, as well as the public, regarding preservation of our cultural heritage the stacks represent for El Paso.

Up to now, much of the community has been misled, not only as to the true costs for such preservation and maintenance but with misinformation as to the legal authority allowing Mr. Puga to dispose or deed any or all of the historically significant property, including the stacks, to the city.

We can question, as well, the environmental appropriateness of burying the stacks versus simply monitoring them as is. It is not clear why Mr. Puga and his overseers at EPA and TCEQ insist that the stacks must be destroyed, despite the evidence to the contrary.

What is clear is that outsiders in Austin and Washington, D.C., are telling El Pasoans what they must do, rather than listening to the community and their best interests.

This cannot be allowed. “Once the stacks are felled, they’ll be gone forever.”

Robert Ardovino is a member of the nonprofit “Save the Stacks.”