Asarco’s costly aftermath: Cleanup first, then long-term planning

By Chris Roberts – EL PASO TIMES

Creative uses suggested for the old Asarco smelter include trendy marketplaces and solar farms. But before those dreams are realized, more than a century’s worth of toxic waste must be cleaned or contained.

In the next few weeks, Project Navigator, a California group responsible for overseeing the cleanup, will send a plan to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for approval. A 2009 report by the commission outlined possible remedial actions and their costs. Although Project Navigator is not bound by the recommendations, they were used to determine a cleanup cost of more than $52 million.

Asarco then placed that amount and the property in a custodial trust.

Some say $52 million is not enough to clean the industrial site that was used for more than 110 years. The depth of contamination requires that some cleanup “be performed in perpetuity,” which the commission defined as 400 to 500 years.

In 1887, when the smelter opened, it was one of the first of its kind. It started with a daily capacity of 150 tons of ore. Metals processed at the plant into the mid-1980s and early ’90s included lead, cadmium, antimony and zinc. When copper prices dropped, the plant was no longer profitable, and Asarco closed it in 1999.

During the plant’s operation, slag — a crusty waste separated from molten metals — filled arroyos on the site. The main contaminants in slag are arsenic, lead and cadmium. Smaller concentrations of chromium, copper, iron, selenium and zinc also are found. In at least one case, the slag reaches a depth of 60 feet.

Former Asarco workers have developed illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and persistent rashes that they suspect resulted from prolonged exposures to the contaminants. In addition, water running down the arroyos has leached some of those contaminants into the groundwater.

Two separate diesel spills also contributed to groundwater contamination, according to commission records. In February 1990, inspectors found tanks that were leaking into the American Canal, which supplies El Paso with residential and agricultural water. In March of that year, Asarco employees found another leaking diesel tank.

Monitor wells near the second spill show significant groundwater contamination. A plume of contaminated water stretches for nearly a mile under the site, the report stated.

City officials said the contamination poses no threat to El Paso’s drinking water.

“We expend a great deal of time and resources to assure that our water meets the high standards of the Safe Water Drinking Act,” said Christina Montoya, an El Paso Water Utilities spokeswoman. “The treatment plants have a tremendous ability to remove contaminants from the Rio Grande.”

Environmental activists, though, say information about illegal releases of toxic material has been withheld from the public, making it difficult to know how to clean the site and how much it will cost.

In 1994 and 1995, state compliance inspectors found unauthorized discharges of solid waste, wastewater and stormwater at the Asarco site. In April 1999, the EPA and the state alleged that Asarco had mismanaged hazardous waste and illegally burned it.

Some of that material was from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, where nerve gases and pesticides were made. Asarco paid a $5.5 million penalty without an admission of guilt, but no definitive list of contaminants incinerated at the plant was released.

“Until they tell us what chemicals were out there and they are honest with us, then we really don’t know what we’re dealing with,” said Heather McMurray, a Sierra Club member who has tracked activities at the plant. She said testing planned for the site is limited in scope and unlikely to reveal previously undetected contaminants.

The biggest and most expensive task, according to the report, will be catching and purifying contaminated ground water now seeping into the Rio Grande. That would cost an estimated $22 million.

Trustee Roberto Puga, who leads the cleanup effort, did not return calls requesting an interview for this story.

Arsenic, lead and cadmium were found in concentrations above national drinking-water standards. Arsenic, the most prevalent, was measured at 6,200 times that standard, the report stated.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality proposed a 3,000-foot-long “slurry wall” along West Paisano Drive that locks into the bedrock, 60 feet below in spots. It would trap contaminated groundwater in an area with the highest metal concentrations. The “wall” is actually a trench with a coating that slows the flow of groundwater toward the river.

Contaminated water would be pumped out of the ground through 80 wells, 30 of which are in place. That water would be treated in an on-site plant.

Treated water would be injected into the Mesilla Bolson, a large aquifer under the plant that runs to Las Cruces. This would require a special 800-foot well.

Stabilizing or removing the slag would be nearly as expensive.

More than 300,000 cubic yards of the most contaminated slag would be deposited in a new $5.8 million landfill. That would include powdery waste on the site that could be dispersed by the wind and relatively easily leached into ground and river water, the report stated.

The rest, nearly 60 acres of slag, would be stabilized with about $10 million of asphalt paving.

“Since the facility has been in operation for over 100 years, there is a high probability that contaminants may be discovered outside the investigation area,” the report stated. “Therefore, the (commission) intends to pave the majority of the plant area to prevent any potential exposure.”

The report recommended that all buildings be demolished at a cost of about $8.9 million. This would allow the agency “to address any contamination under or within such buildings and structures.” That amounts to more than 455,000 square feet of steel, brick, concrete and other structures.

A rail trestle and two bridges, including one that crosses Interstate 10, also would be destroyed.

Most telling are the long-range cost estimates.

It will take more than 50 years to remove most of the groundwater contaminants at a cost of $563,000 a year, the report stated.

Work that will have to be performed for 400 to 500 years includes groundwater monitoring and asphalt repair to make sure the landfills are properly isolated. That would cost about $41,000 a year. The cost of fence repair and other necessary activities is estimated at $40,000 annually.

An additional $12,024 each year in perpetuity would be spent for commission inspection and travel costs.

Most of the money for long-term work would come from interest paid on the $52 million, according to commission officials.