UT System regents to review proposal to buy former Asarco land for UTEP growth

By Vic Kolenc / El Paso Times

The University of Texas at El Paso’s future growth might lie at the former Asarco copper smelter site, just across Interstate 10 from the university’s campus in West El Paso, and on former Asarco-owned land near Sun Bowl Stadium.

The UT System Board of Regents today is scheduled to discuss the system’s possible purchase of about 440 acres formerly used by Asarco, which closed in 1999.

About 210 acres of the property are between Interstate 10 and the Rio Grande, where Asarco operated a copper smelter for 126 years. The other 248 acres are next to the UTEP campus, but only about 50 to 70 acres of that mostly rugged, hilly terrain are developable, Asarco site trustee Roberto Puga said.

The proposed purchase is on today’s agenda for the Board of Regents’ rare meeting at the UTEP campus. The meeting began Wednesday and ends today.

Puga said UTEP officials have been talking to him since 2010 about the property. UTEP officials told him they needed to do their homework and have internal discussions before they could consider buying it, he said.

“It makes sense. It’s a huge amount of land next to them, and UTEP is landlocked everywhere else,” Puga said.

UTEP officials said they will not comment about their interest in the land for future campus growth until after information is presented to the regents today.

The proposal to buy the land is listed on the board’s executive session, and then again as a possible action item after the closed session. But Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a spokeswoman for the UT System, said the regents are not expected to take action on the proposal today.

The UTEP proposal lists the property as 443 acres, but Puga said the total Asarco land totals 458 acres. He doesn’t know why the UTEP number is slightly lower.

UTEP is one of about a dozen entities that have shown interest in the land, but UTEP officials are the only ones who expressed interest in buying the entire acreage, Puga said.

“I am resistant to chopping up the property into pieces. I want a buyer to buy all the acres. UTEP fits the bill nicely,” said Puga, who is in charge of the property’s cleanup and sale.

That cleanup should be completed by November 2015, he said. The cleanup is costing about $80 million. Asarco paid $52 million, and the rest of the money came from the sale of copper and equipment left at the site, Puga said.

The property has restrictions and obligations that the buyer will have to meet, Puga said. UTEP has the wherewithal to comply with the restrictions, and has future needs that could use the entire property, Puga said.

One of the biggest obligations is for the buyer to preserve and monitor a 5-acre landfill where hazardous waste is buried, he said.

“You can’t build residences on the former plant site,” he said.

Commercial buildings, classrooms and even stadiums could be built there, he said. The acreage adjacent to UTEP has no use restrictions, he said.

“No price has been set yet” for the land, Puga said. “The hard-core, real estate negotiations have yet to take place.”

The ultimate sale has to be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Puga said. Money from the sale would go toward monitoring the landfill and other long-term environmental costs for the property, he said.

“I haven’t been asked to submit anything” to the UT System regents or attend their meeting, Puga said. “I am waiting to see what comes out of this.”

If the UT System doesn’t buy the land, then an aggressive national marketing campaign would be done to sell it, he said.

For more information, visit utsystem.edu/board-of-regents and recastingthesmelter.com

Vic Kolenc may be reached at 546-6421.

Source: http://www.elpasotimes.com/news/ci_26876744/ut-system-regents-review-proposal-buy-former-asarco