Saving Asarco’s iconic smokestack to cost $14M

By Chris Roberts – El Paso Times

Preserving the Asarco smokestack that towers above the former smelter site in West El Paso will cost about $14 million over the next 50 years, a new study says.

That price tag may doom the iconic symbol jutting from the heart of El Paso, unless someone or some group steps forward to pay.

“It would be whoever,” said Roberto Puga, principal trustee for Project Navigator, responsible for cleanup and sale of the site. “It would be a public entity like the city or the county. It is possible some grassroots private group would raise the money.”

El Paso Mayor John Cook said Monday he will not ask City Council to raise property taxes to pay for the project.

“I would think the average homeowner would say, ‘I don’t need that smokestack,’ ” Cook said. “I think it would be a waste of taxpayer money.”

Original plans did not call for preserving the stack, Puga said. When some people at public meetings said the stack should be saved as a monument, he said, Project Navigator commissioned the $20,000 study.

An earlier rough estimate pegged the cost at about $20 million.

“Interest in the stack has really been waning over the course of a year,” he said. “With these numbers I would be really surprised if anyone wants to pay.”

Nearly $6 million would be necessary to modify the stack to withstand earthquakes.

When the smokestack was built in 1965 and 1966, earthquake science was just gaining credibility, Puga said. Regulations did not exist, he added. Now, regional standards are set based on the type and duration of seismic activity in the area. To meet that standard, the 826-foot stack would have to be lowered 110 feet, the engineering report says.

The remaining $8 million would be used for repair and annual maintenance. Much of that work involves resealing and repainting at periodic intervals.

Because of the potential danger of collapse and environmental contamination, the cost estimate used the most stringent standards, Puga said.

“The incidence of a failure would have very serious consequences,” he said. “It could result in injury or even a fatality.”

Unless the money is raised, the stack, along with a smaller, 600-foot smokestack at the site, will be demolished, Puga said. That will cost between $400,000 and $500,000, he said. It is cheaper but has risks, including environmental contamination.

“We are trying to have zero dust emissions at the perimeter,” Puga said.

Cook said he has spoken to Puga about the environmental challenges.

“They think they can contain the hazardous material when they implode this thing,” he said.

That likely will involve a technique that creates a fog of water droplets to trap the dust particles and drop them directly to the ground, Puga said. The method is highly sensitive to wind and other weather conditions but has been used successfully, Puga said. If the stacks are demolished, he said, it likely will require a temporary closure of Paisano Drive and Interstate 10.

Stacks approaching 1,000-foot heights, seen mainly at smelters and foundrys, are relatively rare, Puga said.

A request for proposals put out by Project Navigator asks companies to provide specifics on how they would bring the stacks down and contain the contamination. Only a “handful” of companies in nation are qualified to perform such a task, Puga said.

“We need to have someone knowledgeable about knocking down these types of stacks, world class stacks,” Puga said. “For the other demolition, we are trying to use El Paso companies as much as we can.”

Chris Roberts may be reached at; 546-6136.

Stack facts

  • The main stack is 826 feet tall.
  • The outside shell is 62 feet in diameter and 3 feet thick at the base and tapers to about 31 feet in diameter and 9 inches thick at the top.
  • The volume of concrete used in the stack would require about 862 standard cement mixer loads.
  • Construction began on the stack in 1965.