Smokestacks tower above the site of the old Asarco smelter on El Paso’s West Side before the 2013 demolition and reclamation of the site. (Photo from public domain)
FNS Note: The first in a new series of articles about environmental and public health concerns related to the old Asarco smelter in El Paso. This series was made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Kent Paterson | Frontera NorteSur
Near Executive Center Boulevard and Interstate 10 in El Paso sits a barren plot of land that played a pivotal if controversial role in the development of the border city. Flanked by freight rail traffic on one side and zooming cars and trucks on the other, black mounds of slag stand almost as if they are the earthworks of a DMZ between the past and the future.
Off to a side, the gravestones of the Smeltertown Cemetery glitter in the foreground while across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez modest houses cling to the hillsides in the background.
On a recent day, an old Doors’ song playing on Juárez public radio station 106.7 FM seemed to be an appropriate soundtrack as the reporter gazed at the remains of the American Smelting and Refining Company (Asarco).
Once employing thousands and serving as an economic engine in the historical, cultural, and environmental character of the borderland, Asarco is the stuff of memory and legend for many a borderlander, especially those of older generations.
Shuttered since 1999, the landmarks of Asarco were literally blasted from the ground two years ago. On Saturday, April 13, 2013, demolition specialists brought down the two hovering chimneys, 828 feet tall and 612 feet tall, respectively, that lorded over El Paso and Juárez like twin towers eyeing the borderland.
Nowadays, the site of the old smelter is undergoing the final stages of an environmental remediation that grew out of an Asarco 2009 bankruptcy court settlement. Historically contaminated with lead, arsenic and other toxic substances, the former Asarco property is under the charge of a private trustee selected by the by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), California’s Project Navigator.
Some view the remediation as a leap from a bygone, dirty industrial age into an environmentally friendly future. Or is it?
For starters, Project Navigator’s environmental remediation covers only the immediate Asarco property. Yet over the years multiple studies by government agencies, academic institutions and private researchers linked Asarco to pollution over a bigger area encompassing El Paso, Juárez and Sunland Park, New Mexico, less than three miles from the former smelter.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal agency and Asarco, through its contractor Entact, cleaned up 1064 properties in El Paso and 24 in Sunland Park found to contain excessive levels of lead and arsenic between 2002 and 2009.
Jon Reinhart, Asarco site manager for EPA Region 6, said the clean-up bill for the off-the-smelter-site remediations, including preliminary samplings and assessments, totaled $19,600,000. Asarco paid $13,280,780 and the EPA the remainder, Reinhart said in a phone interview from his office in Dallas.
A 2009 court document filed by the TCEQ in the Asarco bankruptcy case reported that 70 El Paso properties still required remediation. Reinhart underscored that participation in the environmental remediation program was voluntary and interested property owners were asked to sign their consent. The EPA official recalled, “Some people said, ‘No, we don’t want it done. We’ve lived here for years without a problem. No thanks.’”
However, since 2010 three separate — and largely ignored — studies by parties other than the EPA or Asarco have identified pockets of metals contamination at additional sites very close to the former smelter in El Paso, Juárez and Sunland Park.
In an interview with FNS last year, Denisse Varela, Juárez attorney and citizen member of the Joint Advisory Committee for the Improvement of Air Quality Paso del Norte (JAC), called such contamination “little souvenirs” left for the locals.
First reporting on the post-2010 studies in 2013, FNS decided to revisit the issue and see what is being done about the pollution.
If Project Navigator is not responsible for remediating the off-site contamination, dubbed legacy pollution in environmental lingo, what is being done to clean up the toxic deposits ? Who is taking the lead?
The pollution remains and poses a threat to environmental and public health, said Dr. Victor Valenzuela, a former TCEQ program manager in El Paso who retired after 27 years of service in 2013.
An area of concern is El Paso’s Sunset Heights, a historic neighborhood near the old smelter and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), Valenzuela told FNS.
Evidence of an ongoing metals contamination problem was detected in 2013 when a group of concerned citizens, Save the Stacks, dug into their own pockets and contracted Hall Environmental Analytical Laboratories of Albuquerque to test soil samples collected at two locations in Sunset Heights and two additional El Paso sites close to the former Asarco property.
The sampling detected an arsenic level of 180 milligrams per kilogram (almost 8 times the US industrial limit of 24 milligrams per kilogram) and a lead level of 770 mg/kg (well above the industrial limit of 500 mg/kg.) on Paisano Drive near Asarco and an International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) field office. Taken next to UTEP’s Sun Bowl Silver Zone parking lot, samples of arsenic came in at 160 mg/kg and lead at 1,300 mg/kg.
Gathered at Heisig and Mundy in Sunset Heights, an arsenic sample surpassed the limit of 30 mg/kg. However, Sunset Heights samples of lead and arsenic taken at Yandell and W. Missouri were within the screening standards. In contrast, samples taken at a control site near Fort Bliss, which is situated on the other side of El Paso from Asarco, detected no arsenic and only 50 mg/kg of lead.
The soils screening investigation was unveiled at the May 2013 meeting of the JAC, a binational advisory body that includes environmental regulatory agencies from Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico. Since the 1990s, the JAC has monitored air quality and recommended policy actions aimed at safeguarding a cross-border air shed.
Dr. Mariana Chew, civil engineer and longtime environmental activist, presented the study on behalf of residents of both sides of the border.
Chew’s report noted that elevated levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium are associated with “severe impacts” on the mental and physical development of children, and linked to cancer and neurological disorders in adults.
“Diseases of multiple sclerosis tend to present clusters in populations living near smelting facilities,” the report continued. “After 100 years of operation of the smelter, the legacy of metals emitted by the facility severely impacts the neighborhoods in this region of the city.” Chew urged further testing and possible remediation in Sunset Heights.
A multiple sclerosis cluster has indeed been identified in the Kern Place-Mission Hills neighborhoods not far from Asarco. In the 1990s a Texas Department of Health study found “twice as high as expected” the number of MS cases suffered by former students of a local elementary school who were now adults. The study, nevertheless, stopped short of pinning the blame for the MS cases on metals exposure.
It should be noted here that Asarco has legally disputed its responsibility for some off-site metals contamination near its former plant and in the proximity of the IBWC field office, close to where samples were drawn for the independent 2013 soils screening investigation.
According to the El Paso Times, Asarco won a judgment last year against cement maker Cemex in an El Paso federal lawsuit. Ruling that Cemex was liable for arsenic contamination of the Rio Grande near the IBWC field office and the American Canal, which provides drinking and irrigation water to El Paso, U.S. District Judge Phil Martinez ordered Cemex to pay Asarco $1.1 million for clean-up costs.
Sally Spener, IBWC spokeswoman, said her agency had earlier obtained $22 million from the Asarco bankruptcy settlement for environmental remediation and restoration in an area around its field office and the American Canal. Spener said the first phase of the project was completed last year, with contaminated soil sent to the old smelter property for TCEQ-approved disposal.
Two more contracts for the reconstruction of the aging American canal will be awarded over the course of the next two fiscal years, Spener said. “It’s a really critical part of the regional water supply infrastructure, so that’s why it’s important to rehabilitate,” she added.
As far as the 2014 court judgment, Spener said the matter is between Asarco and Cemex since the IBWC already received its share of the Asarco bankruptcy money.
Valenzuela, who holds a doctorate in environmental sciences from UTEP, is well seeped in the controversies over Asarco-linked contamination. Born and raised in El Paso, Valenzuela grew up amid the industrial age of Asarco, refineries and other facilities. He recalled “very, very dark skies” during inversions, and attending “many UTEP football games where the taste of sulfur was constantly in the air.” Such experiences helped influence a young El Pasoan pursue a career in environmental sciences, he said.
According to the former environmental official, the TCEQ’s predecessors monitored for lead at a Sunset Heights elementary school as far back as the 1970s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Valenzuela recalled the Texas state environmental agency routinely giving Asarco 180-day extensions for environmental violations in a paper game that “went on and on.”
Later, as a UTEP graduate student, Valenzuela said he was excluded from early soils investigations around UTEP which were uncovering lead contamination around the campus. The findings prompted the EPA to do an “official” probe of their own, he added.
Confirming problems, the federal agency oversaw the remediation of properties in Kern Place, a middle-class neighborhood near UTEP represented by former Texas state Senator Eliot Shapleigh.
Shapleigh emerged as a vocal critic of Asarco, which had been acquired by Mexico-based mining giant Grupo Mexico.
Considering the proliferation of winds blowing from the old smelter in the direction of Sunset Heights, even more so than to Kern Place, Valenzuela warned of the persistent hazards of toxic metals emitted by more than 100 years of industrial operations and lodged into soils that could affect backyard gardens and fruit trees or get sucked into air ducts and homes. Exposed while playing outside, children could further spread the contamination when they return inside with dust on their clothes and their young, vulnerable bodies.
Although Chew’s report stated that Sunset Heights had been ignored by regulatory agencies, the EPA’s Jon Reinhart said the 2002-2009 remediation program had covered the neighborhood.
“I guess they missed a couple of spots” Valenzuela mused.
Chew’s presentation stoked debate at the May 2013 JAC meeting over the appropriateness of an organization dedicated to air quality issues pursuing legacy metal pollution issues.
But members decided to form a sub-committee, or Technical Workgroup in JAC jargon, to follow-up on Chew’s report as well as concerns about the April 13 Asarco stacks demolition that were presented in a petition read out at the same gathering by Andrea Tirres, a citizen activist who worked with the environmental organization El Paso AWARE.
Denisse Varela, Chew and Valenzuela all reminded the meeting that the JAC had not earlier followed up on a 2008 resolution which called for the creation of an Asarco citizen’s advisory panel “or similar forum,” and supported new testing for contaminants both on and off the smelter site.
“Results of this sampling and any historic sampling in the U.S. and Mexico by Asarco or state or federal agencies should be provided to the public in the U.S. and Mexico,” the 2008 JAC resolution added.
The 2008 resolution was passed by a vote of 18-0, with three abstentions. Among the abstainers, the TCEQ and City of El Paso cited pending Asarco-related legal issues for not voting on the resolution.
As a “kick-off” to JAC’s 2013 reexamination of Asarco, plans were afoot to have the advisory body’s PM working group do a wind erosion study but the initial meeting was never held, according to Valenzuela.
Dr. Wen Whai Li, UTEP professor of civil engineering and longtime JAC member, recalled Asarco coming up at the May 2013 meeting but added that the issue was dropped in anticipation of another agency stepping in to deal with the issue. “I think we kind of tabled it,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean it’s not important, but in my opinion it’s not the focus of the JAC,” Li said. Since 2013, Asarco has not been revisited by the JAC, he said. “It wasn’t an air issue anymore,” the UTEP professor held. “When it’s no longer an air quality issue, it no longer gets a priority.”
Valenzuela, who served as JAC’s long-time executive secretary, told FNS he fired off numerous e-mails to JAC members between the months of May and October 2013 inquiring about the status of the Asarco subcommittee, or working group, agreed upon at the May meeting.
The answers? “I got no response,” Valenzuela said.
Valenzuela rattled off a list of JAC members and others he directed the e-mails to: William Luthans (JAC co-chair) and Carlos Rincon, both of EPA’s Region 6; Lorinda Gardner and David Ramirez of the TCEQ; and others. Months passed, Valenzuela retired, JAC ‘s Asarco working group never assembled and the issue faded from the public scene.
Reached by telephone, El Paso TCEQ Regional Director Lorinda Gardner said she “vaguely” recalled the soil screening presentation at the May 2013 JAC meeting, but quickly directed the reporter’s call to the agency’s media affairs division in Austin.
Andrea Morrow, TCEQ spokesperson, sent FNS an initial e-mail that acknowledged the formation of the JAC working group at the meeting in question.
But in a “correction,” e-mail, Morrow contended that minutes showed no subcommittee was formed. The message continued: “There was some discussion about people working on the issue of metals, but it appears it never happened (as it didn’t really relate to the work of the JAC).”
Since this reporter had covered the May 2013 meeting and was in possession of the meeting minutes from the September 2013 meeting in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, where the subcommittee was acknowledged, another call was made to Morrow for clarification.
The TCEQ spokesperson ended the query with a curt, “You need to call the (JAC) co-chair,” as the line was disconnected in the manner of a hang-up. Immediately dialing back, FNS left a message on Morrow’s voice-mail. She did not return the phone call but sent a third e-mail.
“TCEQ experts conducted a thorough review and the JAC minutes don’t reflect a committee being formed..,” Morrow wrote.
EPA Region 6’s Jennah Durant offered a similar explanation, stressing that the effort to form a JAC Asarco subcommittee was promoted by an “outside group” with an issue apart from the JAC’s air quality mission.
“There was never a decision to form a subcommittee by the Joint Advisory Committee,” Durant insisted. The EPA spokeswoman cited EPA’s William Luthans and Carlos Rincon, director of the EPA’s El Paso office, as the sources of her information.
“The minutes clearly show the subcommittee was formed,” retorted ex-JAC Executive Secretary Valenzuela. “The ball is dropped. Everybody has dropped the ball. Now the EPA is changing its story,” Valenzuela argued. The lack of follow-up exhibits a “complete disregard for the data that was shown them,” he added.
(Readers can draw their own conclusions on the Asarco subcommittee by checking out the May (57th) and September (58th) 2013 JAC meeting minutes. No minutes for subsequent JAC meetings are readily available for public viewing.)
Neither EPA nor TCEQ responded to questions regarding specific individuals employed by the agencies who may have made decisions to scuttle the subcommittee after the September 2013 JAC meeting.
A few weeks after the May 2013 JAC meeting, Valenzuela said he accompanied Chew for another presentation of the El Paso soil screening investigation to a gathering of Texas state Senator Jose Rodriguez’s environmental advisory committee. But that meeting proved fruitless too, as no follow-up was undertaken by the El Paso state senator’s office, Valenzuela said.
Long vocal about community health and environmental concerns connected to Asarco, Rodriguez represents Sunset Heights and other areas close to the old smelter. A representative of Rodriguez’s office declined to publicly comment for this story.
Chew told FNS that she sent copies of her report to numerous other elected and public officials. The feedback? “There was no response at all, with all the proof we had,” Chew said. The whole episode, she maintained, smacks of corruption, collusion and the power of money over public good. For the powers-that-be in El Paso, folding Asarco into the past and developing for the future is what matters, she held.
“The local environmental agencies are concealing what happened at Asarco. They keep concealing it,” Chew added. “We environmentalists and researchers have exhausted all the environmental agencies and nobody answers. We have to organize ourselves…the proofs are there for many years. We followed the protocols and everything but nobody paid attention because it is not convenient.”
Valenzuela also waxed philosophical about how it was possible that so many agencies and officials had not acted on a report about lingering metals contamination.
“There’s a curse in public administration. It’s when people don’t to want to resolve the problems under their responsibility,” he said.
In terms of his own former bosses, Valenzuela was even more specific: “The biggest nightmare for any TCEQ regional director is to find anything in their backyard and explain it to the public and the press.”
Sunset Heights residents should demand action on the legacy metals issue, he insisted.
“(Officials) screwed up regarding not doing follow-up once they had this information in front of them multiple times,” Valenzuela said. “The (2013 ) report should be reviewed, come up again, put in people’s faces until a response is made by EPA and TCEQ.”
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