Regents OK Asarco land purchase

$17 million said to be purchase price

By Robert Gray / El Paso Inc. staff writer

The site of the former Asarco smelter in West El Paso in June.

The UT System Board of Regents has cleared the way for the long-anticipated purchase of the entire 458-acre former Asarco property.

In Austin on Thursday, regents voted to authorize final contract negotiations for the purchase of the more than 100-year-old smelter site for the future expansion of the University of Texas at El Paso. The property straddles Interstate 10 near the UTEP campus on El Paso’s Westside.

“It’s a big day,” said Roberto Puga, the bankruptcy trustee charged with dismantling the former Asarco smelter.

Wallace Hall Jr., a member of the Board of Regents from Dallas, spoke in opposition to the measure and was the sole dissenting vote.

“I am not convinced, vice chairman, that being landlocked is a sufficient reason to spend $17 million buying a brownfield site,” Hall said before voting, apparently spilling the beans on the possible purchase price.

Brownfield is a term used to describe contaminated property, often former industrial sites. UTEP officials declined to confirm the purchase price.

“I don’t understand how it fits in with our mission to teach more kids or really improve the graduation rate at UT-El Paso,” Hall said. “I just don’t believe they have made their case.”

The property – a cleared, development-ready swath of dirt in the center of the city, within sight of Downtown, and wedged between the city’s main arterial roads – is considered one of El Paso’s most valuable. But the issues of cleanup and future liability have also loomed large.

Who would buy the 100-year-old smelter site and what it would be made into has been a source of speculation for years.

“Getting the approval of the regents is a huge, huge step and is a culmination of a lot of years of working collaboratively with UTEP,” Puga said.

The next step is to finalize the contract with the UT-System, Puga said. He hopes to close on the deal in the next 30 days. The funds from the sale will go into a trust to be used for maintenance and for monitoring the site, including the ground water and air quality.

The land would be used for the future expansion of UTEP, which has become landlocked as the city has grown up around it, UTEP executive vice president Richard Adauto told El Paso Inc. But no plans have been made public.

“We are pleased that the University of Texas System Board of Regents authorized the purchase of approximately 458 acres of land on the former Asarco site,” Adauto said in a statement, “We look forward to finalizing the purchase in the coming weeks and starting work on the master plan for the property.”

Some of the property will have development restrictions. But the 248 acres north of Interstate 10 and adjacent the campus could be used to accommodate student housing and classrooms.

In its heyday, about 1,300 people worked at the massive smelter complex, but it was shut down in February 1999. Asarco concluded the massive bankruptcy case in 2009. The smelter’s two big stacks were demolished in 2013, and the $80-million cleanup of the property should be completed in the next couple of months as planned, according to Puga.

“We’re just about done with the remediation,” he said.

Nearly all signs of the industry that was once a pillar of El Paso’s economy has been wiped away. The most polluted portions of the site have been covered with a 5-foot-deep cap of clean dirt.

Board of Regents chairman Paul Foster, an El Paso businessman and philanthropist, was unavailable for comment. The UT System did not respond to an interview request.