El Paso’s Asarco smokestacks gone in 35 seconds

By Vic Kolenc / El Paso Times

It took about 35 seconds for two of El Paso’s more visible and sometimes controversial pieces of history to fall to the ground and disintegrate just after the sun rose on a clear, almost windless Saturday morning.

One cannon-like, reverberating boom was followed several seconds later by another reverberating boom.

Those were the sounds produced after about 300 pounds of explosives were detonated inside the bases of two huge concrete smokestacks. They slowly fell like giant trees onto cushioned dirt beds on the former 126-year-old Asarco copper smelter site in West-Central El Paso. Three unexpected paragliders hovered in the sky above Juárez to get a bird’s-eye of the planned destruction.

At 6:55 a.m., the smokestacks were gone.

“It’s the end of an era. It’s changed the skyline,” said Ted Houghton, an El Paso businessman and chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, who watched the demolition from a special viewing area near Executive Center Boulevard and Interstate 10.

Huge, gray clouds of what Asarco site Trustee Roberto Puga said was concrete dust erupted as the smokestacks fell with two thunderous thuds.

The mass of dust clouds spread from the Asarco site to nearby neighborhoods in Juárez, where residents coughed and worried about the dust’s effects.

The clouds also moved across a closed section of I-10 to the University of Texas at El Paso area, where several hundred people stood on rocky hills bordering the freeway to view and photograph the historic occasion. Twenty-six water cannons shot 500,000 gallons of mist at the falling stacks, but that didn’t deter the clouds’ escape. Puga said the mist and other measures reduced the dust.

The dust was mostly gone from the Asarco site about 25 minutes after the demolition, but a dust cloud still hung over Downtown El Paso more than an hour after the smokestacks tumbled down. The Sunset Heights neighborhood near UTEP was also hit hard by the dust clouds, people reported.

Traffic jammed Mesa Avenue and other nearby streets Saturday morning because of a two-hour closing of a section of I-10 and about a four-hour closing of a part of Paisano Drive for the demolition.

“What can I say, it’s no good to cry,” said Miguel Beltran, 85, a former Asarco worker. But his eyes were tearing up after watching the smokestacks fall. He and and handful of other workers were among about 100 guests of the Asarco site trustee at the viewing area. TV anchormen stood in an adjacent media area, giving their still sleepy El Paso-area audiences a blow-by-blow account of the big fall.

“It’s a sad day, a black day for us. I still love Asarco,” Beltran said as he stood next to two other former Asarco workers. “I raised all my (seven) kids” working at Asarco 25 years, he said. The smelter closed in 1999.

Puga, the trustee in charge of cleaning up the former copper smelter site, said the demolition went as planned as he got into an SUV about 25 minutes after the demolition to go from the Executive Center viewing area to the Asarco site to inspect the smokestacks’ rubble.

“The engineering for the drop was right on target. All the ordinance was exploded,” said Puga, a geophysicist, who said he slept very little in the nights leading up to the demolition.

The dust cloud was expected and was within the area established for air monitoring, he said. More than $1 million was spent on dust-control measures, including the water cannons. Without those dust-mitigation efforts, the cloud would have been worse, Puga said at a news conference five hours after the demolition.

The demolition’s price tag is expected to be $1.6 million to $2 million.

State Sen. JosĂ© RodrĂ­guez, D-El Paso, in a written statement released Saturday afternoon, said the thick clouds of dust reported in various areas on both sides of the border concern him, and he called for a “thorough review” of the event.

“Despite reassurances from the trustee, TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) and EPA, thousands of people in El Paso and Juárez were exposed to a cloud of Asarco dust,” RodrĂ­guez said.

Puga said tests of nine core samples from the two concrete smokestacks done before the demolition found no indications of anything in the stacks that would harm people or the environment.

Initial reports Saturday from air-monitoring sites around Asarco found dust levels from the demolition did not exceed regulatory standards, Puga said. Final air-monitoring results from the demolition will be posted on the Asarco trustee’s website in about a week, he said.

No structural damage or injuries were reported on either side of the border after the demolition, Puga said.
Former El Paso Mayor Larry Francis said Puga deserves to be congratulated for a job well done on the stacks’ demolition.

“No surprises. That’s good. If there were surprises, it would have been bad,” Francis said as he boarded a shuttle bus to leave the special viewing area on Executive Center.

“I thought it was good they (stacks) came down. There was no good reason to keep them in the air,” said Francis, 79, who was mayor from 1993 to 1997. “It’s a valuable piece of property, and we need to move on.”

The first to go down was the 63-year-old, 612-foot smokestack, which had served the long-closed lead smelter at the Asarco site. It was almost as tall as a 50-story building. The top half of the stack broke off as it toppled to the ground.

The second to go in a dramatic, slow-motion fall was the iconic, 47-year-old, 828-foot main smokestack used for the copper smelter. It was almost as tall as a 70-story building and had large Asarco letters on the side. A top section of the stack broke off as it neared the ground during the demolition.

A small group of El Pasoans spent about a year in an unsuccessful attempt to save the big stack from demolition. But they could not come up with the millions of dollars needed to preserve what they viewed as an important, historic landmark.

The demolition reduced the stacks to piles of mostly small pieces of concrete mixed with tangled rebar. The news media were allowed to view the rubble inside the Asarco site Saturday afternoon. The stacks were made up of about 30,000 tons of concrete and rebar, Puga said. A small part of the big stack’s base remained after the demolition, but the stack’s Asarco lettering disintegrated.

Puga said it will take several months to clean up the demolition site and dispose of the rubble. The rebar will be removed and recycled. Only a few big chunks remained from the largest smokestack. The plan is to preserve one of those large chunks and have it used as a monument somewhere on the site, Puga said before the demolition. Some small chunks from the big stack will be gathered and encased in plastic to be given as momentos to various people, he said.

The concrete debris will be crushed further and buried at the Asarco site.

The weather was perfect for the demolition. But there were some last-minute hitches.

The demolition’s start, scheduled for 6:45 a.m., was delayed about 10 minutes because two or three gawkers were seen walking in an arroyo along the

Asarco site and the Border Patrol had to take them away from the area before the demolition could begin, Asarco site officials reported.

The three paragliders who appeared shortly before the demolition started were a surprise, Puga said.

“They were on the Mexican side (of the border), and there was nothing we could do about it,” he said. They caused no problems for the demolition, he said.

Another potential problem came up Friday when an unidentified woman called 911 and said she saw a bald eagle, which is a protected species under federal law, on one of the smokestacks. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent went to the Asarco site to investigate. It was determined that the bird was a red-tailed hawk, which did not affect demolition plans, Puga said.

The stacks’ demolition does not end the $52 million cleanup of the 430-acre Asarco site, which began several years ago. The site includes about 200 acres that could be developed between I-10 and the Rio Grande. The cleanup is expected to be completed by 2015 and the land then put up for sale, Puga said.

Vic Kolenc may be reached at vkolenc@elpasotimes. Follow him on Twitter @vickolenc

Video by Victor Calzada, Mark Lambie, Fernie Castillo, Rudy Gutierrez, Ruben R. Ramirez, Jesus Alcazar and Vanessa Monsisvais for the El Paso Times. Edited by Mark Lambie

Source: http://www.elpasotimes.com/ci_23015235/el-pasos-asarco-smokestacks-demolished