El Paso Says Goodbye to Landmark

Asarco Smokestacks Are Demolished as Part of Effort to Clean Up and Redevelop Industrial Site

By Erica Orden

Above, the 828-foot chimney at the Asarco copper-smelter site in El Paso, Texas, tumbles early Saturday morning. (The El Paso Times/Associated Press)

Two concrete smokestacks in El Paso, Texas, regarded as community landmarks, were demolished over the weekend amid concerns about the site’s environmental impact.

The chimneys, 828 and 612 feet tall, had been part of a copper-smelting plant operated by American Smelting & Refining Co., known as Asarco.

The plant, which started operating in 1887 and was controlled for decades by the Guggenheim family, was an important part of El Paso’s economy—but also a big source of pollution. After numerous contamination claims, Asarco filed for Chapter 11 protection in 2005, then emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 by signing one of the largest environmental settlements in U.S. history: $1.79 billion to clean and restore more than 80 locations around the country.

El Paso’s old City Hall begins to crumble in a separate demolition that took place Sunday. (The El Paso Times/Associated Press)

The smokestacks on the Asarco site, located near downtown and adjacent to the University of Texas at El Paso, were felled early Saturday morning using about 300 pounds of explosives. The demolition cost about $2 million and was organized and paid for by the Texas Custodial Trust, which was established as part of Asarco’s bankruptcy settlement agreement and was funded with $52 million to address contamination on the property.

The custodial trustee, Roberto Puga, an environmental engineer, said the clouds of concrete dust and the black plume of smoke that emerged when the chimneys struck the ground weren’t cause for alarm and were handled and monitored properly as part of the destruction project.

Cleanup of the site is expected to take several more years, Mr. Puga said. The goal is to eventually sell the site for development.

“We think the demolition went completely as planned,” Mr. Puga said in an interview Sunday. “We kept the majority of the dust on site, but for the dust that did get out, we had a 16-point dust monitoring grid, and we’re evaluating the data now,” he said. “We don’t anticipate any problems.”

Mr. Puga said that 22 misting machines were used to saturate the air with droplets of water in order to attract and localize the dust.

But local officials and others in the area raised concerns about the demolition’s effects on the surrounding communities.

“We thought that this was going to be an environmental victory for the community, and basically what we get is our city having to pay the cost for more pollution,” said David Cortez, alliance coordinator for the Texas-based chapter of the Sierra Club. “We don’t think that there was enough oversight here.”

State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, whose district includes El Paso, said that “despite reassurances” from Mr. Puga, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the air was safe, “thousands of people in El Paso and Juarez [just across the border in Mexico] were exposed to a cloud of Asarco dust. Particularly after everything this community went through to shut the plant down, there must be a thorough review of, and accountability for, this event.”

The blast took place around 6 a.m. local time Saturday. Mr. Puga said the timing minimized disruption to traffic and also served to contain the dust cloud, because sunrise is the least windy part of the day this time of year.

The smokestacks weren’t the only El Paso structures razed over the weekend: Sunday, the former City Hall, built in 1979, was demolished to make way for a baseball stadium. El Paso hopes the ballpark—set to be the new home of the top minor-league affiliate of the San Diego Padres, now based in Tucson, Ariz.—will help revitalize its downtown.

Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324485004578422891675412804.html