Toxic ghosts of Asarco haunt region

The smokestacks at the old Asarco smelter in west El Paso tower over the Rio Grande before they were demolished in April.

The smokestacks at the old Asarco smelter in west El Paso tower over the Rio Grande before they were demolished in April.

Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur | FNS Feature  

Travelers familiar with El Paso-Ciudad Juárez might notice a gaping difference in the borderline skyline these days. Gone in the desert wind are the towering smokestacks of the old American Smelter and Refining Company, Asarco, of El Paso, blasted into the history books as part of an environmental remediation spearheaded by California-based Project Navigator.

For decades, the residents of Juárez’s Franja Sara Lugo neighborhood lived in the shadows of the hulking chimneys just across the Rio Grande. They put up with sulfuric odors and clouds of emissions from the smelting of lead, copper and other materials. But early on the morning of last April 13, it was fiesta time in the working-class colonia.

Located under Asarco’s nose,  Franja Sara Lugo was a good observation post from which to watch explosives knock down the stacks. Residents later recalled a “picnic-like” atmosphere, almost a tail-gating event, as people from different parts of the city rolled into the border neighborhood with food and drink to celebrate the destruction of the 828-foot stack and its older 612-foot cousin.

The party didn’t last long. A young man who said he preferred to sleep in on a Saturday morning was awakened to the moving of bedroom walls, similar to “a quake.”  Silvia Chavez and several neighbors told FNS how a fog-like cloud of dust permeated their streets, and traced the cracks and a broken window in their homes to the demolition.

“You couldn’t see anything. It seemed like fog,” Chavez recalled. The Juárez resident blamed the demolition for eye problems her 2-year-old grandchild developed the next day, resulting in a visit to a doctor who prescribed medicine for 15 days. “We had to give him medication. I have proof of the irritation,” Chavez added.

In El Paso, where groups of friends also gathered to toast the destruction of the stacks, a dust cloud soon obscured the hip Sunset Heights neighborhood, set on high ground above the former Asarco plant. Photos later posted on Facebook depicted the stacks crashing down and kicking up the dust and haze that subsequently crept across the borderland.

The Asarco Custodial Trustee declared the demolition a success, posting on its website the preliminary results of air monitoring that showed almost all the emissions from the blast were well within air quality standards in both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.

Seemingly, Asarco was now just a memory from a fading industrial era.

Yet like an old border banshee that shrieks incessantly into the night, El Paso’s Asarco site continues to stir up the old burg. The April 13 demolition and issues surrounding it even dominated a lengthy meeting this month in El Paso of the Joint Advisory Committee for the Improvement of Air Quality Paso del Norte (JAC), a binational advisory body made up of governmental, academic and civil society representatives from the U.S. and Mexico.

The man in charge of taking down Asarco’s stacks, Custodial Trustee Roberto Puga, showed up at the meeting with a team of contractors responsible for physically carrying out the daunting demolition task. Marshaling an impressive array of slides and statistics, the demolition contractors from the ERM Group explained in detail how they cleaned and prepared the site, laid plans to safeguard the public and successfully obliterated the two stacks.

“I don’t know of any other place where there were as many (mitigation) measures,” Puga said.

Stressing how they coordinated with Mexican and U.S. authorities per the 1984 La Paz agreement,  Puga and his contractors gave a glowing report that refuted contentions of lingering environmental contamination connected to Asarco’s illegal hazardous waste incineration operation from the 1990s. No pollutants from chemical weapons or radioactive materials were detected in the demolition testing, they said. Puga then pledged that a final report on April 13 would be forthcoming.

With ongoing remediation work under way at the site, the environmental remediation specialist added that he has been conscious of the air shed.

“We’ve been monitoring our dust emissions and putting that on a monthly basis on our website,” Puga said.

In remarks to FNS,  Puga  disputed charges by Silvia Chavez and other Juárez residents that the blasting of the stacks damaged their homes. Seismic monitoring did not measure movements capable of such an outcome, Puga said. “It just doesn’t seem like it was physically possible,” he said.

Puga’s presentation won praise from Thomas Ruiz, border environmental justice liaison for the New Mexico Environment Department, who commended the Asarco cleanup’s point man for the “the transparency I’ve seen.” The smelter site is situated about two miles from Sunland Park, New Mexico.

Dr. Elaine Barron, El Paso physician and longtime JAC member, hailed the dramatic if perhaps not quite final end of the Asarco era. “We have diminished a lot of pollutants by getting rid of the (smelter),” Barron said. “This is triumph over pollutants, and I’m so happy we got rid of it.”

After Puga and company departed the meeting, the JAC got a starkly different view of the demolition. Mariana Chew, environmental engineer, showed a slide of the biggest stack belching dark smoke at the moment of its destruction. The plume exiting the collapsing stack was emitting fine particles that could lodge in people’s lungs, Chew said. According to the veteran cross-border activist, the smoke contained lead, cadmium, dioxins, furans and other substances.

In a surprise report, Chew revealed that a network of researchers from Ciudad Juárez and El Paso tested soil samples using EPA protocol from five sites near the old Asarco property on the U.S. side of the border about two weeks prior to the May 23 JAC meeting. And the results exposed high levels of lead and arsenic, Chew said.

For instance, a sample taken from land adjacent to International Boundary and Water Commission property on Paisano Drive near Asarco reported an arsenic level of 180 mg/kg, or almost eight times the industrial limit of 24 mg/kg, while a lead sample came in at 770 mg/kg, an amount well above the industrial limit of 500 mg/kg. Similarly, a sample taken next to the University of Texas at El Paso’s Sun Bowl Silver Zone parking lot registered arsenic at 160 mg/kg and lead at 1,300 mg/kg.

“If metal testing of Sunset Heights indicates lead and arsenic levels beyond allowable limits, then Kern-type remediation must be initiated,” Chew contended. Her statement was in reference to the EPA’s overseeing of the removal of metal-laden soils from more than 1,000 properties in El Paso close to the old smelter several years ago.

Andrea Tirres of El Paso’s Answers Wanted on Asarco Remediation and our Environmental Health (AWARE), a group which staged public protests against the  demolition,  read a new petition on behalf of cross-border residents that sharply criticized Puga, the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the agency which gave the final approval to the demolition, for shortcomings in public outreach and the manner in which the operation was implemented.

Tirres noted that residents reported post-demolition symptoms of “tasting burnt metal, watery or itchy eyes, irritated skin, headache, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest.” A dousing of demolition dust forced Juárez’s Educando a la Ninez pre-school and primary to close for an entire week, she said, with the school reopening only after the premises were cleaned by parents and teachers.

The petition read by Tirres took the authorities to task for allegedly not conducting adequate testing of the stacks for contaminants while omitting information about possible asbestos hazards. It demands that authorities undertake a number of steps no later than June 15 or July 1, including bilingual outreach about possible post-demolition hazards, free medical screening and blood-testing and assistance in dust-clean-up, among other measures; the petitioners demand independent, third-party testing of Asarco-area neighborhoods.

Quoting an April 5 letter from EPA Region 6 head Ron Curry to U.S. Rep  Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, that assured the Asarco Custodial Trustee would have “clean-up crews on standby” for post-demolition duties, the petition asks:  “Where were these cleanup crews after the demolition? What neighborhoods did they clean up?  None?”

Tirres continued reading from the petition: “This is a severe violation of environmental justice. Had this occurred on the Potomac River and not the Rio Grande River, had this occurred on a community that was wealthy, and had this occurred within binational planning under the La Paz agreement as should have been the case in the first place, the level of preparedness and testing would have never been an issue…”

According to Tirres, copies of the petition were delivered to O’Rourke and Texas state Sen. Jose Rodriguez.

JAC Co-Chair Bill Luthans of the EPA’s Region 6 office observed that two sets of Asarco data existed. The presentations by Chew and Tirres touched off discussion and debate on the JAC’s role, if any, in the Asarco environmental remediation and the legacy pollution issues tied to it.

Luthans said previous local air quality data collected showed that lead from the Asarco remediation site did not contribute to air pollution, and questioned how the JAC, as a group focused on air quality, could get involved without getting entangled in issues outside its purview.

The TCEQ’s Victor Valenzuela, JAC executive secretary, suggested that money could be allocated from EPA’S Border 2020 Program to conduct more soil tests in order to verify Chew’s findings. Juárez attorney and JAC member Denisse Varela reminded the meeting that the JAC had not followed up on a 2008 resolution it passed requesting a thorough testing of the Asarco zone and public disclosure of all the pertinent toxics issues.

Contacted separately, Silvia Chavez said she and some neighbors wanted to attend the JAC meeting but nobody they knew had a visa to cross the border.

Less than a week after the JAC meeting, a 2011 study surfaced that was authored by Fermin Esteban Porras Hernandez and other Mexican researchers for the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC), the agency which certifies project funding from the North American Development Bank.

Based on data collected from soil, sediment and water samples taken after 2009, the study discovered significant lead and arsenic concentrations in Juárez neighborhoods close to the former smelter as well as in the Rio Grande.  Researchers detected lead as high as 968 mg/kg in addition to one arsenic reading of 66 mg/kg.

Fifteen samples of Rio Grande sediment did not exceed Mexican standards, but the same number of samples taken from river surface water surpassed EPA water quality recommendations for lead.  The study’s authors called attention to the deterioration in the Rio Grande’s water quality compared with studies dating to 2003, but stopped short of attributing the entire cause of the river’s worsening health to Asarco. The Rio Grande, of course, is a source of drinking water for both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.

In an examination of the water quality of nearby Juárez households, the study found that all the samples drawn fell within Mexican arsenic standards but fully half of them exceeded EPA and World Health Organization recommendations for lead.

While concluding that metal concentrations had diminished over time due to the 1999 closure of the smelter and other factors, the researchers recommended expanded testing for contaminants, monitoring of groundwater for arsenic, and remedies to protect public health, such the construction of green spaces and the paving of roads in places like Franja Sara Lugo, where dirt roads prevail.

Though the study was submitted to the BECC nearly two years ago, it had not been publicized in Juárez or El Paso.

Reached just after the information began circulating last week, the JAC’s Denisse Varela said the report was an important one, providing further reason to dissect and cleanse the complete body of contamination left behind by Asarco.

“Nobody knew about this study, but we’re going to be able to pressure to remediate the soils,” Varela said. It remained to be seen if a new round of testing would show higher amounts of contamination than the BECC researchers found because of the recent demolition of the stacks, she said.

At its May meeting, the JAC agreed to form a technical committee to review the post-demolition Asarco issue and possibly convene an extraordinary meeting of the binational group.

According to Varela, the technical committee could get the ball rolling in June.  The environmental advocate added that it was important to hold a public meeting in Ciudad Juarez, where many people don’t have ready access to the Internet or the ability to visit El Paso.

Varela said the JAC should request that the appropriate authorities remediate soils and  test the blood of children. “They are more vulnerable to exposure to soil contamination,” she said.

For his part, Asarco Custodial Trustee Roberto Puga told FNS that he planned to have the remediation of the historic smelter property finished by the third or fourth quarter of 2015 in preparation for a sell-off.  “I’m going to aggressively market the property,” Puga said.

Readers interested in staying abreast of the Paso del Norte’s Asarco saga can consult the following sites:

Asarco Custodial Trustee
El Paso AWARE
Joint Advisory Committee

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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