Cleanup of old smelter enters final phase

Last load of salvaged copper selling $800K

Asarco copper
Large chunks of copper on the former Asarco site are worth about $800,000. The copper was recovered from beneath the former smelter’s huge furnaces.

By Robert Gray El Paso Inc. staff writer

By the guard shack that marks the entrance to the old Asarco copper smelter, a semicircle of oversized dump trucks protects what looks like a collection of small, worthless boulders.

They are actually chunks of copper salvaged from the site, and together, they’re worth roughly $800,000.
And when a buyer picks them up in the next week or so, there will be no metal left on the site to sell, according to the bankruptcy trustee overseeing the cleanup and sale of the property, Roberto Puga.

Since the towering Asarco stacks were demolished 18 months ago, a lot has changed on the property, and most of the industrial landmarks that were part of El Paso for decades are gone.

While standing on the site – it now looks like a giant gravel parking lot – a visitor finds it hard to pick out exactly where the massive warehouses and furnace buildings, some the size of small stadiums, once stood.

One building remains. Puga has left standing the historic administration building, built of adobe in 1887. Local historic preservation groups are working on a plan for its future.

Puga toured the site Wednesday morning in an old Mitsubishi sedan left behind when the El Paso copper smelter was shuttered in 1999, following Asarco’s bankruptcy. The tan four-door has saved the trust tens of thousands of dollars in rental car fees, Puga said.

The $80-million cleanup of the 450-acre property is set to finish the third quarter of next year. The last big project will cover the polluted portions of the site with a five-foot cap of clean dirt, according to Puga.

“We’ve always kept the end in sight so we don’t build something that would make it very difficult to redevelop,” he said.

The end is the eventual sale of the property.

Puga is a principal with Project Navigator, Ltd. The Los Angeles-based environmental risk and resource management company was selected to oversee the cleanup and sale of the Asarco property.

Devices to scrub arsenic that might sneak into water flowing through the site have been installed in the Parker Brothers Arroyo, which snakes through the property, according to Puga. He said results of water sampling show they are working.

The landfill that contains polluted material cleaned from the property is finished, and all that is left to do is to plant desert scrub on top to prevent erosion.

The power lines that sit precariously atop eroded piles of slag along Interstate 10 will be moved, Puga said.

“We are negotiating with the power company so that they put the new polls somewhere less conspicuous,” he said.

The pile of black slag, a byproduct of the copper-making process, that slopes down to the edge of Interstate 10 by the train bridge, an eyesore for commuters, will be covered in concrete, according to Puga.

As for the chunks of copper by the guard shack, they were sold to a buyer in the United States and will probably be melted down and remade into wire and tubing, Puga said.

He is eager to sell the property. Proceeds from the sale will go into a trust to pay for the continued monitoring of the site and to cover any contingencies.

“There are unknowns,” Puga said. “This stuff is going to stay here forever, so you constantly have to keep an eye on it.”

Some potential buyers have shown interest in the property, but so far, no offers have been made.

“Nothing on paper – nothing like that,” he said. “There are just talks with the UT System.”

Officials with the University of Texas System visited the property recently, and the University of Texas at El Paso, which is landlocked and borders the Asarco property, has said it is interested in purchasing at least a portion of the site.