Asarco trustee: Sale pending to UT System

By David Crowder El Paso Inc.

UT Sale
RobertO Puga, center, trustee of the former Asarco smelter site in West El Paso, answers questions at a public meeting Thursday. He said a sale to the UTEP System, and UTEP, is pending.

Photo by David Crowder
Puga said remediation of the 460-acre property should be completed this year. The smelter’s two big stacks were demolished in 2013.

The $80-million cleanup of the Asarco smelter site will be completed this year as planned, and so might the sale of the 460-acre property to the University of Texas System as the trustee and others hope.

Roberto Puga, the Project Navigator trustee in charge of the remediation of the Asarco site, in the past had hedged in his comments about the sale. But he spoke openly about it at an Asarco community meeting Thursday evening.

“We’re hoping to complete the sale this year,” Puga said in response to a question from a member of a small crowd that had many questions during the session at the Downtown library.

Puga, who oversaw the dramatic demolition of the Asarco stacks in April 2013, said he had hoped from the beginning that the property straddling Interstate-10 near the UTEP campus would end up in the UT System’s hands.

“It’s a confluence of a lot positive things for us both, but from my end, it would just be so much easier dealing with the university in terms of their compliance with restrictions on the property … than with, perhaps, a private developer,” Puga said.

While much of the site will be developable, some of it will not. Restrictions on its development, as well as the ongoing maintenance and monitoring of the property, will be perpetual.

“Some of the areas have no restrictions but some do,” he said. “You can’t build homes on the old plant site, for example, or hospitals or day care systems.

“Those areas will be limited to commercial and industrial uses.”

The other reason Puga wanted it to go to UTEP: He only wanted to deal with one buyer.
“I was leery of going in and starting to parcel out the property because I was of afraid I would be stuck with an orphan – a piece of property I couldn’t sell,” he said.

$300,000 a year

Maintaining the site and the environmental monitoring equipment will cost $300,000 a year in today’s dollars, and that is what the money from the sale will be used for.

Puga would not discuss the potential sale price for the property.

Rather than addressing the audience from the stage as he’s done before, Puga moved the session into the library’s lobby, set more than a dozen charts on stands and mingled with the people who came, answering questions face to face.

He found himself getting grilled by people with environmental concerns, as did Scott Brown, the vice-president of Arcadis, the environmental contractor that has done most of the work at the site.

They included District 1 city Rep. Peter Svarzbein and Bob Geyer, a former city transportation planner who recently retired from the county.

Both asked what more could have been done at the site if more money has been available for remediation – particularly the $32 million that the Environmental Protection Agency would have chipped in if the city had sought a Superfund designation for the project.

“Nobody can tell me that $32 million couldn’t have been used to clean up that site better,” Geyer said. “It was done so quickly.

“I can’t imagine that all this crap’s been spewing out of the stacks for 100 years and then you guys come in and clean it up in, what, three?”

Brown responded, “I understand where you’re coming from, and all I can tell you is that my reputation means more to me than anything else. I put my name on this and we did a great job.

“Honestly, if we had a whole bunch more money, I don’t know what I would do with it.”
The only thing Puga said he could think of was the removal of exposed slag in a small area just above Interstate 10 in the smaller Asarco parcel that will be open to residential development.

He insisted that slag is safe because it doesn’t contain any of the arsenic, cadmium or lead found closer to the smelter. But if there were more money, he said, he could have moved it to one of the landfills below the freeway.

Puga went out of his way to point out an unusual area of trees on the map not far from the edge of the UTEP campus.

“We worked really hard to keep all of the trees in here,” Puga said. “I haven’t seen a similar habitat in El Paso. I don’t know why there’s so much water in here.”


Several people also asked about the radioactive materials reportedly buried at the Asarco site.

That issue was raised by The New York Times, which reported years ago that radioactive materials from Asarco’s Encycle Facility in Corpus Christi were incinerated at the El Paso smelter and that the ashes were buried on site in the late 1990s.

Puga and Brown said no documented proof was ever found and that the details of the search are posted on the Navigator’s “Recasting the Smelter” website,

“Yes, it was reported,” Brown said referring to the news story, “but when you look at the pure documentation, there is nothing there, and the trustee spent over $200,000 looking.

“A lot of testing has also been done, but no tests have detected radioactivity at the site.”