Doomed smokestacks symbolize Asarco’s legacy

By Diana Washington Valdez – El Paso Times

The two Asarco smokestacks that will be demolished Saturday morning sit ready to come down as wide-ranging misters spray water on the site to minimize dust. (Ruben R. Ramirez / El Paso Times)

The demolition of Asarco’s smokestacks on Saturday will signal the end of an era that leaves behind it a mixed legacy of economic prosperity and environmental degradation.

Thousands of border residents are expected to watch the distinctive landmarks tumble down, including former Asarco workers Miguel Beltran and Charlie Rodriguez.

“I was fortunate to have worked at Asarco,” said Beltran, 85, a boilermaker and welder at the plant from 1970 to 1995. “Thanks to Asarco, I raised seven children, one who’s a doctor in Houston. I bought my house, a car and a truck, and I lived in the same home for 40 years. During a regular week, I could make $500, and up to $900 a week with overtime. Those were great wages for El Paso.”

Beltran came to El Paso from California and knocked on Asarco’s doors when he went looking for a job. “I was told you had to have a relative working at Asarco to get in, but I lucked out when I applied. They said they had an opening for a welder, and that’s what I was, a welder.”

The former smelter worker said he disagrees with those who blame Asarco for their health problems.

“The negative things that are being said about Asarco are myths,” Beltran said. “I am in very good health for my age — no cancer, no nothing — and I think it’s because I used the safety goggles, hard hat and masks that they gave us to wear. I worked all over the plant and went in on any day and at any time they asked me to show up. I don’t understand some of the ex-workers who say that Asarco made them sick.”

For more than a century, the lives of thousands of border residents were tied to the smelter’s fortunes.

During the 1990s, before the workforce reduction, the smelter had employed as many as 1,000 people.

This aerial photo shows the areas that have been cleared for the stacks to fall onto during demolition. (Brian Kanof / El Paso Times)

Rodriguez, 63, started his career with Asarco in his early 20s, beginning in 1972 until the 1999 layoffs. His father, brother and uncle also worked at the plant. At first, he was a laborer, feeding conveyor belts with copper ore that was on its way to the furnace. He later became an electrician, and he finished out his work for Asarco as a maintenance electrician.

“I and others are sick, especially those who come from the younger generation,” Rodriguez said. “My brother, Richard, also worked there, and he was 58 years old when he died from cancer. I’m sick, too. I know of many ex-Asarco workers who died prematurely. We were very loyal workers, but the company was not loyal to us. For example, they didn’t tell us about the (unpermitted) hazardous waste from Encycle they were incinerating at the El Paso plant.”

Activists including Heather Murray and Bill Addington supported shutting down the plant, alleging that it was the source of environmental hazards for residents who lived near the smelter.

Murray and Addington said the hazards came from arsenic and lead from Asarco’s smelting process that polluted the air and soil, as well as from the unauthorized incineration of military hazardous waste.

Asarco officials always denied that the plant is responsible for the ailments that ex-workers are experiencing. They contended that the heavy metals came from pesticides, paint and leaded gasoline, and not from the plant.

Robert Puga, the trustee for the site cleanup, said on Thursday that none of the military hazardous waste that was incinerated without a permit in the past at Asarco has turned up in tests conducted during remediation work. Puga will oversee Saturday’s historic demolitions.

The end of the smelter

Most agree that the end for Asarco began in 1999 when a decline in copper prices worldwide forced the company to lay off 370 workers in El Paso and shutter smelting operations. The company kept a skeleton crew at the site while it waited for economic conditions to improve.

Instead, an intense battle followed to shut down the smelter. Asarco had its own internal disputes, and due to growing environmental liabilities from all its U.S. operations, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In 2009, it announced that it would shut down the El Paso smelter for good.

Work crews from El Paso Concrete Cutters work on preparing the Asarco stacks for demolition. (Courtesy of El Paso Concrete Cutters)

Former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, who spearheaded the community’s battle to close the smelter, was unavailable for comment.

The first of Asarco’s environmental woes in El Paso began in the 1970s after medical tests confirmed high levels of lead in the blood of many children in Smeltertown, a community along the Rio Grande of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans who worked at the plant.

Newspaper archives indicate that El Paso city officials moved 120 families out of Smeltertown in 1973 and razed the community. The Smeltertown Cemetery adjacent to the main plant site remains intact.

“In the spring of 1970, the city of El Paso filed a $1 million suit, later joined by the State of Texas, charging Asarco with violations of the Texas Clean Air Act,” according to the Texas State Historical Association. “In December 1971 the El Paso City-County Health Department reported that the smelter had emitted 1,012 metric tons of lead between 1969 and 1971 and found that the smelter was the principal source of particulate lead within a radius of a mile.”

In 1990, the company invested about $81 million to modernize its smelting technology, but time showed that it was not enough to fend off mounting environmental complaints from residents, politicians and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“Under the agreements reached in the bankruptcy court Asarco is relieved of all the liabilities it incurred during its 100 years of operation,” according to a report by Lin Nelson and Anne Fischel, academics at Evergreen State College in Washington state. “This means that future costs to human health and the environment stemming from the impacts of Asarco’s 100 years of operations will be borne by workers, families, communities and ultimately, by U.S. taxpayers.”

Pancho Villa

Francisco “Pancho” Villa, one of the major leaders of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, might have been Asarco’s most famous employee.

In a 2007 column for the El Paso Times, historian Leon Metz said that Villa went to work as a laborer for Asarco on Jan. 19, 1913.

“Two months later, on March 7, Villa and six laborers working at Asarco É on horseback forded the Rio Grande and headed south. (Each) toted a sack of flour, two small packages of coffee, some salt and small arms, but little ammunition,” Metz said. “Within weeks, Villa struck a mining camp at Boquilla, Chihuahua,” and the revolution was under way.

Other historical accounts offer conflicting stories about Villa’s association with Asarco. One maintains that Asarco initially supported Villa in order to protect its mining operations in Mexico. Another account blames the revolutionary hero for the execution-style deaths of 18 American employees of Asarco near Santa Ysabel, Chihuahua. Villa denied ordering his men to kill the Americans.

Some big names are also associated with Asarco’s company history, including legendary American and Mexican industrialists.

Under Robert Safford Towne, the company began operating in El Paso in 1881 with a 100-foot chimney, smelting ore from Mexican mines. A plaque at the plant’s main office, which will be spared from destruction, states that Asarco started with 250 workers when the smelter used to be located near the Union Depot.

The Kansas City Smelting and Refining Co., owned by August Meyer, provided additional backing for the smelter and its expansion. Later, the American Smelting and Refining Co., founded in part by William Rockefeller (brother of Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller), and later run by the Guggenheim dynasty, took over Kansas City Smelting and Refining.

In modern times, investors and owners who had a stake in Asarco included Grupo Mexico’s Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, and the Carlyle Group, a global conglomerate associated with former President George H.W. Bush, according to newspaper archives.

At one time, Asarco was considered to be Mexico’s largest private employer. It had several operations south of the border, and in other U.S. states and countries.

A 1974 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks refers to the “Mexicanization of Asarco,” pointing to a period when prominent Mexican businesses began investing in it heavily and eventually bringing Asarco into the fold of Grupo Mexico, which currently is in good financial shape.

Richard Adauto, an official at the University of Texas at El Paso, found out after some research that Asarco had donated land to the then-Texas Western College on at least two occasions.

Ironically, it was soil testing by graduate students from UTEP and New Mexico State University that gave impetus to new uneasiness over the possibility that Asarco might restart its copper smelting operations.

This led to hearings, the EPA’s involvement, and Asarco agreeing, among other things, to remove lead and arsenic contamination from the soil of about 1,000 outdoor properties in West and South El Paso.

On Saturday, both the good and the bad of Asarco’s El Paso smelter will be buried when its once-mighty stacks are reduced to rubble.

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at; 546-6140.