Officials seek delay on Asarco demolition

Environmental, health, safety concerns raised

By Marty Schladen – El Paso Times

A group of elected leaders this week will send a letter to state environmental regulators asking that they delay demolition of the Asarco smokestacks because of environmental and safety concerns.

The trustee in charge of the project said his team has already addressed most of the concerns and the rest will be addressed in advance of the planned April 13 demolition.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, state Sen. Jose Rodriguez and state Rep. Marisa Marquez, all El Paso Democrats, on Thursday confirmed that they planned to sign the letter to be sent to Bryan W. Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

County Judge Veronica Escobar and city Rep. Susie Byrd also said they would sign the letter, which asks whether risks associated with dropping the stacks have been adequately addressed.

“It has now come to our attention that serious, additional questions regarding the long-term environmental and health consequences of the planned demolition and burial of the stacks are being raised,” a draft of the letter says.

The letter comes after a group wanting to save the 800-foot and 600-foot smokestacks for historical reasons apparently lost its battle battle in December.

The Asarco smelter shut down in 2000 after a century of operating as a smelter — and processing quantities of dangerous toxins as lead, arsenic and cadmium. Residents fought to shut down the smelter, but preservationists want to keep the stacks, saying they’re an important symbol of El Paso’s heritage.

The letter that lawmakers will send environmental officials cites health and safety concerns that add to the preservationists’ arguments.

Among them, it asks what contaminants are in the stacks.

Roberto Puga, the trustee in charge of cleaning up the Asarco site, on Thursday said his team is undertaking additional tests to analyze them.

Three core samples will be taken from the 600-foot stack, which has no inner lining. Three core samples will be taken from the inner cylinder and three from the outer cylinder of the 800-foot stack, Puga said.

The cores will be pulverized and checked for metals, volatile organic compounds and semi-volatile organic compounds, Puga said. The results will be posted on the trustee’s website,

The lawmakers’ letter also asks whether the safest way to deal with the materials is to bury them in landfills on the part of the Asarco property that lies to the west of Interstate 10. It also asks whether it would be cheaper and safer to keep the smokestacks — the tallest of which was built in 1966 — standing.

“Has anyone seriously analyzed if it would be better, environmentally, simply to keep the stacks standing and monitor any contaminants going forward indefinitely?” the letter asks.

Puga said the question misunderstands the scope of the cleanup at the site.

“The stacks aren’t driving the size of the cells,” Puga said, referring to the landfills on the west side of Interstate 10 where all contaminants to be gathered on the property will be placed. “We have a hundred years of slag that Asarco left behind.”

In terms of the total amount of contaminants, Puga said, debris from the stacks would not substantially increase the size of the cells, so the cost to maintain the stacks above ground would mostly be in addition to the cost of the landfills.

There also is concern about the proximity of the cells to much of the city’s water supply; the American Canal and the Rio Grande run a few hundred yards from Asarco’s western parcel.

Puga said officials considered removing contaminants from the site, but it was too costly — about $250 million. Instead, the cells consist of an impermeable plastic liner containing layers of gravel and dirt and pumps and pipes to carry away water that might accumulate in the bottom of the cells. The idea is to keep water inside the cells from migrating into the groundwater, Puga said.

The area surrounding the cells will be monitored after the project is completed, Puga said.

“That’s standard procedure,” he said. “You don’t just build it and leave it behind.”

Puga said the cleanup will be complete by 2015 and he hopes to sell the property by 2016. He said the eastern parcel should be clean enough that people could live there — a claim that has been treated with skepticism by critics.

With a landlocked campus, the University of Texas at El Paso inquired last year about expanding into the eastern parcel. The commission on environmental quality, which oversees Puga, told UTEP and University of Texas System officials that it was premature to discuss developing the property before it is cleaned up, UTEP Executive Vice President Richard Adauto said Thursday.

The letter lawmakers plan to send this week also asks whether Puga and his team have planned for a disaster.

“What catastrophic emergency plan exists should the demolition not go as planned, i.e., the stack falls the wrong way, the wind kicks up unexpectedly and spreads contaminated dust, or a stack is undermined and then falls before anyone is ready?” the letter asks.

Puga said his team has gathered extensive weather data and will monitor weather forecasts before the demolition. In addition, Paisano Dive and I-10 will be closed during the demolition, and access to the area will be restricted.

El Paso City Engineer Alan Shubert on Thursday said he has been meeting with Puga’s team and planning for contingencies — including disaster. Shubert said officials ruled out demolishing City Hall on April 13 partly out of fear of overtaxing public-safety resources in the event something goes wrong with the Asarco demolition.