Safety plans for Asarco, El Paso City Hall presented today

By Cindy Ramirez \ El Paso Times

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

City officials today will present the safety and emergency response plans for next month’s demolition of the Asarco smokestacks and City Hall.

The two tallest smokestacks of the American Smelting and Refining Co. are set for demolition on April 13. The City Hall demolition is scheduled for the next day.

El Paso City Engineer Alan Shubert, who will give the presentation to City Council today, didn’t return calls Monday.

But in previous interviews, Shubert has said city officials have been coordinating with the first responders — police, fire and emergency medical services — to plan street closures, detours, policing and other emergency management details for the demolition of City Hall.

Shubert has said portions of Interstate 10 and the streets surrounding City Hall in Downtown would likely be closed for at least a couple of hours before and after the demolition, and that the first responders would be on standby nearby.

Details of the Asarco smokestacks’ demolition, including how they will be torn down, where they’re expected to fall and how dust and debris will be controlled, were provided during a public meeting in February attended by about 50 people. Explosives will bring down the 825-foot and 612-foot stacks simultaneously, according to the plan. Safety precautions were also discussed, including the closure of Paisano Drive, Interstate 10 and one street in JuĆ”rez.

“My intent is to be sure that on demolition weekend, everything is going to be safe and we are not going to have a catastrophe,” said city Rep. Emma Acosta, who put the items on today’s agenda for discussion. “And should there be one, that we have an emergency plan for each of the locations.”

Specifics about how the City Hall implosion will work won’t likely be discussed, as city engineers are still working with the demolition contractor on those plans.

“I’m sure all the proper precautions have been taken, but I’d like for all of us on council and my constituents to see the plan so they know what is being done,” Acosta said.

City Rep. Cortney Niland, who represents District 8 where both Asarco and City Hall are located, said her office has been working with public safety agencies and city engineers and demolition teams on the safety plan for the City Hall demolition.

She called Acosta’s request for the presentation “premature” because all the details are still being finalized. Had Acosta talked to her office first, Niland added, she would have found that a presentation was forthcoming.

El Paso City Hall with Insights Museum building at Santa Fe and Missouri in foreground. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times)

“We would have liked to have waited another week or two to work out the last details,” Niland said. “But we have a very professional staff that has worked diligently over the weekend to put (a presentation) together a little sooner than they anticipated.”

Also today, Acosta is expected to ask city staff whether designating the smokestacks as historical could help save them.

Acosta said she realized it may be unrealistic, but wanted to give those trying to save the stacks “a last say.”

The agenda item on the issue asks for “discussion and action on applying a historical overlay” on a portion of the smelter that includes the stacks.

A historical overlay is a form of zoning regulation that typically preserves the historic character of a site or building and prevents it from being torn down.

“I really don’t know the process for doing that, and I think it’s too late, but we have to give people a chance to express their concerns and their ideas,” Acosta said. “I’d like to get the details during the council meeting and let everyone discuss the option.”

Niland, who supports the demolition, said that would not be feasible at this point because the process requires public vetting, an analysis to justify the designation, a recommendation by the city’s Historic Preservation Office and the passage of an ordinance by the council.

Niland said she may move to delete the historic overlay discussion, saying the issue has been vetted with the public through numerous community and council meetings.

“To bring this up again misleads the public and is disingenuous because it can’t be done,” Niland said.

The council has previously voted down taking ownership of the stacks, or spending money to save them. The council approved a resolution supporting saving the stacks, but only if it would require no financial obligation from the city.

Last week, a group of elected El Paso officials sent a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality asking whether the risks associated with tearing down the stacks have been adequately addressed.

The trustee in charge of the Asarco project has said most of those concerns have been addressed, and the rest will be addressed before demolition day.

Asarco shut down in 2000 after a century of operating as a smelter.

Cindy Ramirez may be reached at; 546-6151.