UTEP, UT System cancel deal to buy 460 acres of former Asarco smelter land for expansion

by Vic Kolenc, El Paso Times

UTEP and University of Texas System officials have pulled out of a pending deal to buy the former Asarco copper-smelter site and Asarco land located next to the El Paso campus.  

University of Texas at El Paso officials had planned to use some of the land to expand the landlocked campus.

The UT System had a 3-year-old contract to buy about 460 acres for $16.9 million, with most of that money to be used for the long-term environmental monitoring of the property, said Roberto Puga, the Asarco site trustee.

However, UT System and UTEP officials determined that it would cost about $7 million more to “fund the maintenance, monitoring, repair, and replacement of environmental controls” on the property, according to a UTEP statement.

“We cannot ask our students and their families to pay the $7 million” in additional costs, UTEP spokesperson Victor Arreola said in a statement.

Puga said he had no comment about that cost estimate.

UTEP still is interested in buying 248 acres of the land next to the UTEP campus — something Puga said might be considered after his team reevaluates the sale options for the property.

“I’m surprised and disappointed, but not discouraged” about the possibilities of selling the Asarco property, said Puga, who operates PathForward Consulting in California. “I always wanted UTEP to have it. I felt they would keep the property together and I had the utmost confidence that the UT System and UTEP would take care of the environmental requirements in the future.”

But, Puga said, “They had every right to make that decision under the contract.”

The now mostly vacant land is bisected by Interstate 10, with about 210 acres near the border with Juárez, where the copper smelter had operated for more than 100 years. It closed in 1999, and the iconic Asarco smokestack was demolished in 2013.

Another 248 acres of rugged, hilly land is located next to the UTEP campus. Only about 50 to 70 acres of that land is likely developable, Puga said. That’s the acreage that UTEP officials still are interested in buying.

Former UTEP President Diana Natalicio told the UT System Board of Regents in late 2016, when the regents approved negotiations to the buy the land, that more student housing and recreational facilities likely would be built on the acreage adjacent to the UTEP campus. But options for the 210-acre smelter site would have to studied, she said.

Puga said real estate brokers handling the marketing of the property will help reassess the sale options, which could include dividing the property into two or more sale parcels, or keeping it together and finding one buyer.

“We’ll keep UTEP in the mix. It would be free to bid on all or part of the property when we put it back on the market,” Puga said.

“We’ve always had interest in the property” from other potential buyers, he said.

About $80 million has been spent on the Asarco site’s environmental cleanup, with about 5% remaining to be done, Puga said. Asarco paid $52 million of that cost in an environmental settlement with federal agencies, and the remainder of the money came from selling copper and other metals from the site for recycling, he said.

The 210 acres where the smelter was located only can be used for commercial or light industrial uses, Puga said. A sports stadium could be built on the land, and that has been looked at in the past, he said. No homes, hospitals or schools could be built on that land, he said.

Whoever buys the property now will be responsible for paying for future environmental monitoring costs because those costs will not be paid for with the sale proceeds as had been agreed to in the UT System contract, Puga said.

Money from any sales would be used to pay for completing the environmental cleanup, Puga said. If any money is remaining it would be transferred to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Any sale of the Asarco land has to be approved by the state and environmental agencies, he said.

Vic Kolenc may be reached at 546-6421;  vkolenc@elpasotimes.com@vickolenc on Twitter.

Source: https://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/local/el-paso/2020/09/22/ut-system-cancels-asarco-smelter-land-deal-for-utep-expansion/5859162002/