Asarco cleanup halfway done, set to wrap up in 2015

By Diana Washington Valdez \ El Paso Times

The 47-year-old, 828-foot Asarco smokestack falls to the ground. (Rudy Gutierrez / El Paso Times)

The environmental cleanup of the 400-acre Asarco smelter site has reached the midway mark, says Roberto Puga, the trustee appointed to oversee the work.

“We’re about halfway done,” Puga said. “Our target year to be done with all of it is 2015.”

Asarco previously agreed to provide $52 million for the remediation work, but some officials and advocates said this amount was not enough to accomplish the massive removal and mitigation of contamination that had built up over decades of lead and copper refining.

The smelter operated in the area for more than a century; cleanup began in 2010.

Puga said he managed to raise an additional $28 million from the sale of assets at the site, mostly from the copper residue that became valuable because of today’s high copper prices, and which was reinvested in the cleanup.

“We were very lucky that this happened,” he said.

The trust has about $40 million left for the remaining remediation work.

“Unless we run into any unexpected surprises, we should have a good cushion to pay for the rest of the cleanup,” Puga said.

Puga works for the custodial trust that a federal bankruptcy court created for the cleanup, and in that capacity, he answers to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the court.

The April 13 demolitions of Asarco’s two smokestacks left the most visible changes at the site. Rebar from the fallen structures will also be removed before concrete chimney pieces are buried at the site.

Puga said he’s received several unsolicited inquiries about the property from commercial interests. The University of Texas at El Paso also asked about some of the Asarco property across Interstate 10 from the campus.

On Monday, Richard Adauto, UTEP vice president of legal affairs and oversight, said the university may visit the land issue in the future.

“Generally, we are interested in property that abuts, is contiguous or lies along the perimeter of UTEP,” Adauto said. “The remediation is not finished, and so we will need to evaluate this in a couple of years.”

All that remains of the ASARCO smokestacks is concrete powder shown from theis aerial view. (Brian Kanof/El Paso Times)

Ex-Asarco worker Miguel Beltran said he would like to see a regional park constructed on the former smelter site.

“A big park, with playground equipment for the kids and bike trails and other amenities,” Beltran said. “It should not be an amusement park. It should be a park that is free and open to the entire public.”

Kenny Gross, president of the Greater El Paso Association of Realtors, said that more than a year ago an undisclosed group had expressed interest in the site for an amusement park. “The group wanted to keep the smokestacks intact and build the park around them, but this did not go far,” he said.

Gross said the site currently is zoned for industrial use, and that it may be difficult to market the land for residential subdivisions.

“It’s hard to overcome the stigma that comes with such events,” Gross said. “We saw this with homes in Kern Place and Sunset Heights during the soil cleanup. Of course, it really will be the city that dictates what is going to be there, and it all comes down to economics.”

Before the remediation at the smelter site began, Asarco had paid to remove lead and arsenic contaminated soil from several hundred yards in West and South El Paso. Prior to that, mortgage lenders had required that properties be free of contamination before agreeing to process mortgage loans.

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at dvaldez@; 546-6140.