Asarco Demolition reaction mixed in Juarez

By Lorena Figueroa \ El Paso Times

Juarez residents came out early Saturday morning before the Asarco demolition. (Jesus Alcazar / El Paso Times)
Juarez residents came out early Saturday morning before the Asarco demolition. (Jesus Alcazar / El Paso Times)

JUAREZ — MarĂ­a FĂ©lix Luna, who has lived in the Ladrillera de Juárez neighborhood for more than 30 years, gasped the moment she saw the two Asarco smokestacks fall Saturday morning.

“I feel sad and happy at the same time but more worried of what is going to happen next,” Luna said a few minutes later while watching from the improvised balcony of her two-story cinder-block home about 30 feet from the Rio Grande, near the shuttered copper smelter.

Luna was among the hundreds of spectators at Ladrillera de Juárez who were waiting — some of them for hours — outside their homes, in the streets and on top of roofs and hills for the demolition of the 828-foot and 612-foot smokestacks.

Minutes before the blasts, residents said they had mixed emotions.

Gabriela Bonilla, who lives three blocks from Luna’s house, said she felt the stacks should have been kept because they were part of El Paso and Juárez’s history.

“Besides, it was a point of reference for everyone. All this time I have said I lived where Asarco is,” said Bonilla, who has lived in Ladrillera de Juárez for 25 years. “Now what am I going to say?”

Bonilla said she and her family got up at 4 a.m. to see the “historic moment” with other neighbors and their children who met in Luna’s home.

The neighbors did not know why the stacks were being demolished. However, most of them were concerned about the effects of the demolition.

An angle from the Juarez side of the border of the Asarco smokestacks early Saturday morning. (Jesus Alcazar / El Paso Times)
An angle from the Juarez side of the border of the Asarco smokestacks early Saturday morning. (Jesus Alcazar / El Paso Times)

“They (Asarco and U.S. authorities) took out their contamination problem, but they left it to us,” Luna said after clouds of thick dust covered most of Ladrillera de Juárez and other northwest Juárez neighborhoods when the stacks came down.

She is fearful that her young grandchildren will suffer from the same illnesses, like asthma, and have the learning problems that two of her youngest daughters have. More than 15 years ago, her daughters — now in their 20s — were diagnosed as having high levels of lead in their blood.

“The stacks should have been demolished years ago when Asarco was operating and polluting, not now. The demolition will do more harm than good,” said Lorena Gándara, who has lived in Ladrillera de Juárez for almost 15 years.

Gándara said she was involved in keeping Asarco closed in the early 2000s. She joined a group of Juárez and El Paso residents who traveled to Austin to testify against reopening the smelter.

“Asarco, their interests and the rich say that people getting sick in both sides of the border is only a myth,” she said. “I am sure they would say otherwise if they had a child with asthma, leukemia and lead in their blood, like many had here.”

El Paso’s environmental engineer Mariana Chew, who was among the spectators in Ladrillera de Juárez, criticized officials for not calculating how much the dust cloud was going to expand after the stacks were demolished.

Chew said the pollutants in the cloud will stay in the soil and the Rio Grande bank for at least 100 years.

Last week, Roberto Puga, the Asarco site trustee, said the stacks contained no elements at a level that would pose a health or environmental risk during the demolition.

U.S. state and federal environmental officials have also said they saw no problems with the demolition plan.

Mexican officials who reviewed the Asarco demolition plan and environmental impact tests from U.S. officials also did not have major concerns about problems on the Juárez side of the border.

Juárez authorities closed some streets at Ladrillera de Juárez and Sara Franja Lugo neighborhoods and established a surveillance operation in the area at least three hours before the scheduled demolition.

Educando a la Niñez Preschool and Elementary School, situated in Ladrillera de Juárez and a few yards from the border and Asarco, will cancel classes for its 180 students this week as a precaution.

Consuelo Arámbulo, who is a student at the school, was accompanying her mother, Gándara, to see the demolition of Asarco’s stacks Saturday morning.

She and her 5-year-old sister each wore a surgical mask and covered their ears during the blast.

“I didn’t like the clouds that formed around the stacks. They made me cough,” the 8-year-old girl said afterward.

Lorena Figueroa may be reached at; 546-6129.