Want to buy a piece of Asarco? Sales from August auction could add $200,000 to cleanup fund

By Sito Negron – El Paso Inc.

There’s about a million dollars more in the trust to clean the former Asarco smelter than there was when the process started, according to the trustee in charge of the project.

“We started with $52 million,” said Roberto Puga, the principal of Project Navigator, the company hired to oversee the cleanup.

“Because of asset sales that’s up a bit, to $53 million. Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll still be in same position, even though we’ll have accomplished a lot of work,” he told El Paso Inc.

There are about 20 buildings on the 120-acre main smelter site. Some are offices full of desks, chairs and lockers. There’s a metal shop and a wood shop, plus stadium-size buildings filled with industrial equipment. The site had a rail spur, with tracks and engines.

Items like furniture, wood- and metal-working tools, pipes, tanks and vessels, and electronics go on sale at auction Aug. 2-5. Puga said he’s hoping to raise $200,000 through the auction.

Meanwhile, other items already have sold, or will be sold later. Some have value for their function – like the oxygen plant Puga said sold for $2 million already, or rails and ties that sold for $300,000 – and some have value simply because they’re huge and made of metal.

“The other big asset, and we haven’t got a quote yet, but when we knock the buildings down, there’s a lot of iron, either rebar or metal components,” he said.

He estimated the value at $2 million to $3 million. And when Asarco stopped operations, he said, there was a full load of ore on site.

“We think it’s still in the furnace. That mineral value could be worth millions,” he said, adding there’s also copper used as sheeting in the furnaces.

Finally, Asarco owned 240 acres of land across Interstate 10, bounded roughly by the University of Texas at El Paso, and Mesa and Executive streets.

Puga said he’s still waiting for an estimate on the value of the land, which he expects this week.

Future funds

Money raised from the auction and other sales will help pay for the cleanup. A trust of $52 million was put aside for that purpose in the $1.8-billion Asarco bankruptcy settlement reached last December.

The plan essentially is to raze all buildings – that includes demolishing the iconic 828-foot stack built in 1967, which Puga said would cost millions to preserve and maintain – scrape the site and cover it in concrete.

The next step is to suck out and dispose of millions of gallons of contaminated water that’s leaking into the Rio Grande at an undetermined rate.

That is cleanup enough to make the site ready for heavy commercial or industrial use, as determined by both the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But that also limits what can be done with the site from a land-use perspective, and critics of the plan have said it isn’t enough to ensure the public’s health.

However, Puga said, it’s unlikely that the general plan for cleanup will change.

“It is a forlorn hope that I can change the cleanup standard from commercial/industrial to anything else,” he told El Paso Inc.

Puga said some of the extra funds raised will go to a specific purpose not contemplated in the cleanup plan: restoring the arroyo that runs through the property.

He said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes looked at the site recently, and will try to get federal money to assist with that project.

Another project would stabilize the wall of black slag facing Paisano Drive, and cover it with concrete.

Meanwhile, a consultant, Dover Kohl, is distilling ideas that came out of the city-sponsored series of public meetings, called charettes, about how to use the site and surrounding properties.

It’s all part of a larger effort to plan for high-density transit-oriented developments and to update the city’s master plan.

According to a website set up for the charette process, a summary of those ideas would be presented to City Council this month, followed next month by a series of meetings to vote on final end-use recommendations.

But a city official said that process is being pushed back by about a month.

Auction questions

Heather McMurry, an activist at the forefront of efforts to keep Asarco from re-opening, sent an e-mail to Puga asking whether the auctioneer had been notified of hazardous waste being illegally burned in the smelter in the 1990s. McMurry has continued to question the cleanup plans and whether the former plant presents an ongoing health hazard to the region.

In an e-mail reply, Puga told McMurry that auctioneer Walter Parker had been notified.

He said he did not agree with concerns that items auctioned from the site might be contaminated, but said to accommodate those concerns everything will be power-washed before it leaves the site.

“It is important to note that that equipment included in the auction was not part of the smelter process or stored within process buildings,” Puga wrote. “Equipment is being sold as is, where is. Equipment to be auctioned may be dusty due to the surrounding environment but not impacted by plant operations. Dust will be removed via pressure washing and/or vacuuming prior to leaving the site.”

He added that bidders will be required to sign a release acknowledging that the site has been affected by contaminants and that the equipment is being sold as is.

As for logistics, he said, everyone who comes to the site for the auction will have to register, and assigned bidder numbers.

Shuttles will take bidders from a parking lot outside the guard shack to the location of that day’s auction.

“We will be augmenting our security force to patrol the auction area and the site to assure that people do not wander off,” Puga said.


Aug. 2-5 auction at former Asarco cite

Wood shop: Band saw, wood lathe, table saw, jointer, work tables, cabinets.

Metal shop: Steel rod, plate, poles, angle iron, gears, storage cabinets, tools, small machine tools, cutting equipment, press, planer, milling machine, horizontal boring mill, turret lathe and metal stock.

Electronics: Parts from process plant and miscellaneous new and used components and controls, electrical hardware, motors, controllers, circuits, individual components and spares. High voltage components for 480V service, resistor banks, fuses, switches controls, electrical panels, switchgears, controllers, high-voltage transformers.

Process equipment and piping: Valves, flanges, pumps, tanks and vessels.

Railroad: Wheels and tracks.

Office: Desks, chairs and lockers.

Industrial: Overhead rail cranes and hoists, clamshell buckets, 3-phase industrial motors and blowers, pumps and related mechanical equipment, boilers and components, steam generators, turbines and power plant equipment.