Prep work finished for demolition at Asarco

By Vic Kolenc – El Paso Times

Smoke stacks from the former ASARCO smelter along I-10 rise above the fog Sunday, January 6, 2013. (Rudy Gutierrez / El Paso Times)

The stage is set.

The former Asarco copper smelter site in West-Central El Paso is ready for the $1-million-plus demolition of two large smokestacks to take place near sunrise Saturday.

“Our team has been working very hard to prepare the site, and I think we left no stone unturned to make this demolition event as safe as can be done,” said Roberto Puga, the trustee in charge of cleaning up and selling the 430-acre smelter site.

Most of the preparation work was done last week, and the installation of a huge water-mist system, one of the dust-control mechanisms, was completed this week, Puga reported.

A 612-foot smokestack, about the height of a 50-story building, used at the site’s long-closed lead smelter, will be demolished first with a blast of explosives.

That will be followed about eight seconds later with a blast to demolish the iconic, 828-foot smokestack used for the copper smelter, which stopped operations in 1999. That 47-year-old stack, almost the height of a 70-story building, is visible for miles. It has the Asarco name painted on its side.

It’s that stack that Sunland Park restaurateur Roberto Ardovino spent about a year leading an unsuccessful effort to try to save. Ardovino sees the smokestack as a historic landmark that could have anchored the site’s eventual redevelopment.

Come Saturday, Ardovino said, he plans to be out of town.

“I won’t watch it,” Ardovino said of the stacks’ demolition. “It’s a real low spot in El Paso history.”
Ardovino also said he’s not satisfied that the demolition’s dust won’t cause environmental and health problems. He doesn’t trust tests Puga’s team had done on material samples taken from the stacks. Puga said the tests show the stacks contain no elements at a level that would pose a health or environmental risk during the demolition.

State and federal environmental officials said they see no problems with the demolition plan.

Ardovino said he’s also worried winds will carry demolition-created dust off the Asarco site.

The trustee’s demolition plan states that demolition will be delayed if sustained winds of 15 mph or more, or wind gusts of 30 mph are occurring when demolition is to begin, now set for around 6:30 a.m. If the demolition were to be canceled Saturday, it would be rescheduled for the same time Sunday, Puga said. The only other thing that could stop the demolition is lightning, Puga said.

“I don’t think anyone has done anything to this extent for dust control” on this type of demolition, Puga said. “We’ve spent a million-plus (dollars) on dust control. There will be a big dust cloud. But the goal is to keep the dust on the site itself.”

The demolition will cost an estimated $1.6 million to $2 million, Puga said. The actual demolition will cost about $400,000, and the rest of the costs are tied to dust control, he said. Those costs will be paid from $52 million that Asarco put in a trust for clean up of the site.

Puga said the dust-control measures include putting a geo textile, cushioned liner on top of the ground in the smoke stacks’ fall zone. It’s like a thick, wool blanket and covered with clean soil, and then sprayed with a binding agent to keep the dust down, he said. As another dust-control measure, an adhesive-like material has also been applied to inside walls of each stack.

Ardovino is a member of El Paso AWARE, a group that’s been questioning the adequacy of the remediation efforts at the site, and is now collecting names on an online petition (on in hopes of stopping the demolition.

The petition is to be sent to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator in Dallas today. It asks the agency to stop the demolition until the group’s health and environment concerns are addressed. The petition had more than 250 signees Wednesday evening.

El Paso AWARE members have also circulated a letter sent this week to the EPA and others from Ivonne Santiago-Lopez, who said she’s an environmental engineer with concerns about whether the stacks were properly tested for asbestos and chemicals, and whether all asbestos was removed from the stacks.

Puga said the letter prompted him to have core samples previously taken from the stacks to be tested in a lab Wednesday for asbestos. The results showed no evidence of asbestos, he said. The tests were done to allay any concerns he said, and the results will be sent to the EPA and posted on the trustee’s website (, he said.

Asbestos was removed from a gasket on the big stack’s flume as part of the Asarco site’s asbestos removal plan, Pugo said. No asbestos was found in the small stack, he said.

The smokestacks’ demolition plan was submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, the state’s environmental agency, and the EPA, and the agencies’ suggestions were incorporated into the final plan, Puga said.

Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the state environmental agency in Austin said both the state agency and the EPA reviewed the Asarco smokestacks demolition plan.

“Both of us and the EPA work closely with the Asarco trustee on all aspects of remediation” at the former smelter site, she said.

An emailed statement from Jennah Durant, a spokeswoman for the EPA’s regional office in Dallas, said, “The EPA believes the preparations and final demolition plan are protective of the environment and people’s health.”

EPA officials have been talking with members of the community to answer their questions and share information, the statement said. Stack sampling results and other information is on the trustee’s website, the statement noted.

Brandenburg Industrial Service Co., of Chicago, and Dykon Explosive Demolition Corp., of Tulsa, are the contractors hired to demolish the smokestacks.

Dykon did the explosive demolition of the Dallas Cowboys’ former stadium in Irving in 2010, and has been responsible for the demolition of more than 100 chimneys around the world, according to the Asarco trustee’s demolition plan. Brandenburg has conducted demolition of smelter smokestacks in Arizona, New Mexico and other parts of the United States, the plan reports. Brandenburg also did the explosive demolition in 2004 of the Philadelphia Phillies’ and Philadelphia Eagles’ former stadium, the plan reported.

The smokestacks are to fall like trees toward the center of the Asarco site, according to the demolition plan.

The stacks will break into big and little chunks as they fall, Puga said. One big chunk from the big stack is to be preserved and is expected to be placed somewhere on the site by the El Paso County Historical Society as a memorial, Puga said. Some small chunks from the big tower will be encased in plastic and given to various people as mementos, he said.

Most of the towers’ remaining pieces will be crushed, after iron rebar is removed for recycling, and the crushed material buried on the Asarco site, Puga said. Chunks will be tested after the demolition for hazardous materials. If tests determine pieces contain hazardous material, then the pieces would go in an area set aside on the site for hazardous waste, he said.

The demolition plan states there is a remote possibility the stacks could tumble in the wrong direction and fall across Paisano Drive, which will be closed during the demolition. If the smaller stack falls in the wrong direction, it also has the potential to fall across the Rio Grande, the report states. If one or both stacks were to fall across Paisano, the demolition contractors would work with the city’s Office of Emergency Response to remove the debris from the road, the plan states. The U.S. Border Patrol would have the lead in any response if the small stack were to fall in the Rio Grande.

Juárez officials have been asked to close streets in Juárez near the Asarco site, the report added.
A command post and viewing area for news media and invited guests will be on the edge of the Asarco site near Executive Center. No public viewing areas are being set up. UTEP officials have elected to keep Sun Bowl Drive open Saturday. People can watch the smokestacks’ demolition from some vantage points along Sun Bowl Drive. The university plans to have increased campus police patrols Saturday morning, a UTEP spokeswoman said.

Carlos Rodriguez, 64, a former Asarco smelter worker who is a part of El Paso AWARE, said he, too, has concerns about the stacks’ demolition. But he plans to invite other former Asarco workers to view the demolition from the parking lot of the former Jaxon’s restaurant on Mesa. He said he plans to release two black pigeons signifying the “bad stuff” from Asarco, and a white pigeon to signify a new beginning.

“It will really be a touching moment for the (former Asarco) workers,” Rodriguez said of the stacks’ demolition.

Puga said demolition of the stacks is only part of the ongoing cleanup of the Asarco site, which, he said, remains on a target for completion in 2015.

Vic Kolenc may be reached at, 546-6421. Follow him on Twitter @vickolenc

Read the report

The final demolition plan for the Asarco smokestacks is online at Scroll down on the home page of the Asarco trustee’s website to find a news release with a link to the report.