Ex-Asarco employees seek reason for illnesses

By Chris Roberts – EL PASO TIMES

EL PASO — Patrick Garza worked as a pipefitter and welder at Asarco in the 1990s. As he describes his years there, he gestures with his left hand to make a point. It trembles, so he steadies it with his other hand.

Doctors diagnosed Garza, 48, with multiple sclerosis in 1997. A few weeks ago, he learned that hazardous waste was illegally incinerated at Asarco. He wonders if that exposure caused his illness.

Records of the chemicals processed at the plant have been incomplete and in most cases unavailable, said Verónica Carbajal, an attorney working with Garza and about 15 other former Asarco employees who have health problems.

They hope sampling at the plant will provide key pieces of information that could help doctors treat their ailments. But time is slipping away.

In November, crews are to begin demolishing the 123-year-old copper smelter. The plant was established on the bank of the Rio Grande in 1887, when El Paso was an “adobe village of several hundred inhabitants,” according to a city history. Asarco soon became an economic engine for the city.

Smelter operations halted in 1999 when copper prices plunged. Between 200 and 300 employees were laid off. In recent years, copper prices rebounded and Asarco received a state permit to resume operations. Governments on both sides of the border objected. Then the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, indicating that the company would have to make a significant investment in equipment. Asarco, which had gone bankrupt, closed the smelter for good.

The plant is now in the hands of a trustee, who will oversee a yearlong, $52 million demolition project.

“People want to cover it up, take down the smokestacks and forget this ever happened,” said Carbajal, who is with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc. “They (employees) gave this company decades of their healthy years, and all they get is pain.”

Calls to the Asarco headquarters in Tucson seeking comment for this story were not returned.

Carbajal said a lawsuit would be difficult so long after a bankruptcy reorganization. Other hurdles to legal action include the statute of limitations, proving what caused the illnesses and the expense.

Instead, former employees are fighting for information. Permanent rashes and serious illnesses where there were no previous symptoms are among the mysteries they want to understand. In some cases, doctors have not been able to pin down causes or find effective treatments, they said. The group, with its direct exposure, could be an indicator of problems soon to surface in the surrounding community, Carbajal said.

“No one has done a comprehensive study of the workers, so we’ve started doing it ourselves,” Carbajal said. “They don’t want the community to go through what they’ve gone through.”

One event touched off outrage against the company. An EPA review showed Asarco had been illegally burning hazardous waste from Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal between 1989 and 1997. Chemical weapons, including napalm and mustard gas, were manufactured at the arsenal. After World War II, private companies made pesticides there.

Asarco paid a $5.5 million penalty without an admission of guilt, but no definitive list of contaminants incinerated at the plant was released.

A letter sent in February to EPA officials asked the agency to help find funding for an “independent health study” focused on the workers. Carbajal and 31 other groups and individuals signed the letter. It also asked that the EPA “release to the public all of the information concerning the type, source and amounts of hazardous waste that were illegally incinerated at the facility.”

In its May 14 response, the agency referred to federal and state studies looking at health effects of lead and arsenic on neighboring communities. One of those studies showed that Mesita Elementary School students “were found to have a higher rate of (multiple sclerosis) than would be expected by national estimates.”

The response stated that waste material containing lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, zinc and other metals were shipped to the site, and that its data indicated toxic organic wastes were in such small quantities as to be undetectable. But it stated that some of the data is considered “confidential business information, which is legally protected from public release.”

It concluded: “EPA’s understanding has been that the results of the health evaluations conducted (by state and federal agencies) did not clearly show a need for an independent expert to study the potential health effects of people living in the El Paso area.”

An EPA spokesman said Friday that nothing had changed.

That leaves a plan — part of the cleanup — to catalog pollutants lacing the site. In mid-July some of the former employees joined trustee Roberto Puga for a plant tour. They pointed out where leaky train cars they believe carried the hazardous waste entered the plant and where the material was stored. Puga said samples will be collected at some of those locations after the state approves a plan.

Former employees will have access to the analysis, Puga said. But they say they do not have money to pay for a health study that would put the results in context.

Management never told them what was dripping from the train cars, which arrived when Asarco was receiving hazardous waste, said Carlos Rodriguez, 61, a former company electrician. He has rashes, hypertension and thyroid problems.

When placed in the furnace, the waste would erupt in violent spurts of molten material that burned holes in the bricks protecting the oven walls, said Mario Nev√°rez, 57, an Asarco mason who maintained the ovens.

He remembers the warning labels on the fire bricks. “It said that after being exposed to heat, the molecular structure is going to change, and it will create carcinogens,” he said. “We would be breathing all that smoke.”

Nev√°rez has rashes on his feet. He said his doctor has not been able to diagnose the problem. Application of a fungal cream made the burning worse and did not stop the outbreaks, he said.

“You just need to ignore it,” Nev√°rez said. He also had a stroke that has damaged his memory and eyesight.

“I used to be a self-employed bricklayer,” he said. “Now I can’t even read the tape measure right and make a decent cut.”

In 1997, Garza, the pipefitter, reported to the company’s medical personnel that he had numbness in his face that had lasted two weeks.

“They said, ‘Maybe your respirator was too tight,’ ” Garza said. So he went for testing, he said, which revealed high levels of lead, cadmium and arsenic in his hair samples.

After Garza was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Asarco officials put him on light duty, which included doing laundry and cleaning toilets. They laid him off in 1999. Garza sued, claiming the company had discriminated against him because of his disability. He lost.

“I wanted to appeal,” Garza said, his hand trembling. “It would have cost about $12,000. I could not afford the appeal process.”