ASARCO comes to a close

By Lorain Watters

Roberto Puga, ASARCO commissioner with Environmental Services Management, goes over post-demolition. (Andres Rodriguez/The Prospector)

The ASARCO smokestacks, after 50 years of standing tall over the El Paso horizon, were demolished in 13 seconds at 6:55 a.m. April 13.

Although the demolition was successful, this is only the halfway point before the project is complete, said Roberto Puga, ASARCO commissioner with Environmental Services Management.

“We still have two more years left to complete the repairs from the impact to the environment of this site,” Puga said. “We are on track to finish in 2015 and we hope for the site to be ready for sale in 2016.”

Even with the viewing points near the smokestacks, such as Paisano and Executive St., closed, residents of El Paso still managed to watch the demolition from various sites. The perimeter parking lots around the UTEP campus, I-10 and the mountains and hillsides around Sun Bowl Drive and Executive St. were filled with spectators.

Along with customs helicopters and airplanes, three paragliders also sailed across the sky near the site prior to the demolition. Hovering in the sky, they watched the towers fall to the ground from an aerial perspective.

Noah Wiggs, freshman student at El Paso Community College Transmountain campus Early College High School, drove to the P-6 parking lot with his mother to take pictures of the site where the ASARCO smokestacks stood moments before. He watched the demolition from his home on Kern St.

“We have a little house in our backyard and I climbed on top of that house so we had about half the image of the (tower),” Wiggs said. “When we saw it, the top of it kind of went down and then it was falling towards our house. It was really weird.”

Wiggs’ grandfather used to work at ASARCO at one of the ventilation shafts. Because of the working environment, he breathed in harsh chemicals which led to his recent death, Wiggs said.

“I’m glad that it’s down,” Wiggs said.

Paisano St. opened at 10 a.m. and I-10 and Executive St. opened at 8 a.m.

A post-demolition press conference was scheduled for today at noon to debrief press over the event and discuss future plans for the site.

“We are happy with the work we did and the data will bear it out,” Puga said.

However, the way the dust collected and moved into the city was not anticipated. The dust mitigation was to saturate the dust and keep it controlled once the smokestacks had fallen. 500,000 gallons of water was used just for this portion.

“The dust was the concrete, it is more dense and that is why it was hanging so low,” Puga said.

The cloud of dust rolled over I-10 and seeped into campus, moving its way through the city until it dissipated.

“(The dust) is toxic, what are you going to do? You can’t complain about it now and it doesn’t really affect me anymore,” said Andrea Portillo, senior graphic design major. “It was more further away, we weren’t informed, but it would have been helpful to have a warning.”

During the press conference, Puga said, “I felt very tired (when the smokestacks fell down), it was a relief that they fell as we planned, a weight was lifted. I am still very tired right now and I really haven’t processed it completely. I got some emails from some folks congratulating us and thanking us. Most of the input I have gotten from this morning has been fairly positive.”

After the demolition, a blasting engineer went on site to make sure that the ordinances placed to bring the towers down were used. An electrical signal was used to detonate all of the dynamite at the same time.

According to, ASARCO first began in 1881 when Robert Safford Towne organized ore companies in El Paso, making the first lead and copper ores with a 100-foot high chimney.

In 1902, seven lead furnaces were built and the first copper smelter began operating in El Paso. This increased employment and helped the economy, paving the way for the 612-foot smokestack, which was built in 1951 and the 828-foot smokestack built in 1967.

When a fire broke out at Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, now UTEP, in 1916, ASARCO came forward and donated land. Over the next 25 years they donated 150 acres to allow the school for a new start, according to

These two towers were built in order to alleviate some of the air pollution that was gathering. The 828-foot smokestack was also intended to disperse some of the smoke and gas waste at a higher altitude. However, there was still a high concentration of lead in the air, causing many families and workers of the region to become sick.

According to, by 1985, the zinc and lead plants were shut down, leaving only the copper smelter in operation. By 1999, ASARCO began cutting expenses and by 2009, ASARCO was set in closing down the smokestacks.

“We have begun construction of the waste cell, once that is done over the summer it will be filled with the designated material. We will be completing the design for the monofill cover that will go over this site and we have to make sure that the groundwater testing that we are currently doing is effective and that will take a few years to complete,” Puga said.

The site still has work to be done over the next few years but the process of completing the renewal is well underway, transforming the face of El Paso for a new age.

ASARCO site where the 828-foot tower once stood. (Andres Rodriguez/The Prospector)

ASARCO site where the 612-foot tower once stood. (Andres Rodriguez/The Prospector)

Lorain Watters may be reached at