A Toxic Century: Mining Giant Must Clean Up Mess

Timeline of Asarco's History In El Paso

As part of its bankruptcy settlement, Asarco must clean up its smelting plant in El Paso, Texas. Henry H. Rogers and Leonard Lewisohn founded the company on April 4, 1899. Special Collections Department, University of Texas at El Paso Library hide caption

Timeline: History Of Asarco In El Paso
itoggle caption Special Collections Department, University of Texas at El Paso Library

In December, the Justice Department announced a settlement in one of the largest environmental bankruptcies in U.S. history.

The American Smelting and Refining Company, known as Asarco, will pay a record $1.79 billion to settle claims for hazardous waste pollution at 80 sites in as many as 20 states.

Cleanup will begin this year on one of Asarco's most notorious properties — the copper smelter in El Paso, Texas.

Icon Of A Bygone Era

Driving through El Paso on Interstate 10, you can't miss it: There on a bluff, a stone's throw from the Rio Grande, the old iron and copper smelter sits like a moldering Soviet factory.

Time was, the 120-year-old smelter — where metals are extracted from ore — was a pillar of El Paso's economy and one of the best jobs in town.

"You can't get [a] job here in El Paso compared to Asarco," says Miguel Beltran, 82, a former maintenance worker. "Asarco is the best place to work. We were just like a family."

Asarco was part of the mining empire of the storied Guggenheim family, which made the steel that helped the U.S. military win two world wars. But the world changed.

Smokestacks that once represented power and progress became symbols of industrial pollution. Today, many people remember the smelter as an environmental outlaw for contaminating central El Paso with dangerous metals, and for secretly and illegally burning hazardous waste.

Jim and Debbie Kelly stand on the smelter's slag field looking up at an 800-foot smokestack emblazoned with "ASARCO." They belong to an anti-smelter group called Get the Lead Out.

"It was the largest smokestack in the country, and there were people in town who proudly proclaimed we live in a place with the largest smokestack," Jim Kelly says.

"They marketed it very well," says Debbie Kelly. "And the people of El Paso were brainwashed to believe that this was the most wonderful thing El Paso could possibly have ... this tall, polluting, contaminating smokestack."

'A Bookmark In History'

Although the smelter shut down in 1999, as recently as last year, Asarco sought to renew its air emissions permit to restart the blast furnaces. Widespread opposition in El Paso and across the river in Juarez, Mexico, became a case study of a community's fight for environmental justice.

"Maybe stick them out in the middle of nowhere, but to be right in the heart of a city is not a good thing," says El Paso Mayor John Cook, who opposed the permit.

The Environmental Protection Agency finally told Asarco "no." The company, then a bankrupt subsidiary of the mining giant Grupo Mexico, abandoned its efforts to reopen the El Paso copper smelter. In December, the state appointed a trustee to clean up the site, which is contaminated with a periodic table of heavy metals: lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, selenium and zinc.

Asarco paid $52 million to a custodial trust as part of its bankruptcy settlement. The plan now is to sell off the plant for scrap, isolate the contaminated soil, treat the poisoned groundwater so it doesn't flow into the Rio Grande, and finally, cap the whole 400-acre site with asphalt. A big question is what to do with the iconic brick smokestack?

"I would love to leave the smokestack there as a reminder, sort of a bookmark in history," Cook says.

But whose history: El Paso's or Mexico's?

Mexico Suffers Asarco's Waste

Cook and other longtime El Pasoans remember when the wind would shift to the south, the smelter would crank up production, and the smokestack would gush dirty yellow smoke directly into Juarez.

"They could basically pollute as much as they wanted, because it was going into another country that had no ability to stop us," Cook says.

As a result, sulfur dioxide and heavy metals fell on the colonias and schools and playgrounds of El Paso's sister city, where federal and state regulators had no jurisdiction.

"It is very clear that a majority of what came out of that flue and was deposited over 100 years landed in Mexico," says Texas state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, one of those who led the fight to close down Asarco.

Colonia Ladrillera, in Juarez, is located less than a half-mile from the smelter. People here complained of skin rashes, allergies and asthma when Asarco was operating.

When longtime resident Consuelo Renteria is asked what she thinks when she sees the great chimney to the north, she answers with fire in her voice: "I think it's a symbol of our rage, because it hurt many people here," she says. "The people of the United States, they will fix everything over there. And here, what will happen? Nothing."

Company Loyalty

The corporate office of Asarco in Tucson, Ariz., did not respond to an interview request. With the bankruptcy settlement, the company has a new CEO and has turned its attention to its remaining three copper mines in Arizona and a copper refinery in Amarillo, Texas. A statement on its Web site says at Asarco, environmental considerations are "a way of life within the company."

To this day, some former workers remain angry at the public thrashing the company endured.

"Everybody was healthy," says Pat Escandon. "My uncles were there; they passed away in their late 80s. My dad was 87. I've never had a headache." He and all the men in his family worked at Asarco most of their adult lives.

Despite Escandon's enduring company loyalty, Asarco's impact on public health in El Paso is irrefutable.

Lasting Effects

A landmark study by the Centers for Disease Control in the early 1970s found that more than half of the children living within a mile of the smelter had levels of lead in their blood four times today's acceptable limit.

The lead study was so influential that it contributed to the EPA's decision in 1973 to phase lead components out of gasoline.

A similar study in Juarez found a mirror image of elevated blood-lead levels in Mexican children.

A follow-up U.S. study was even more troubling.

"We found in these children who seemed to be healthy that they had reduced IQ, slowing of their reflexes, impairment of their motor coordination," says Dr. Philip Landrigan, the epidemiologist who led the research nearly 40 years ago. "This was one of the very first demonstrations that lead could cause toxicity on the human brain in children who appeared to have no symptoms."

Landrigan is now chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, and an acclaimed children's health advocate.

After these findings, Asarco discontinued its lead smelting operation in El Paso.

To date, more than 1,000 properties surrounding the plant have been "remediated," or cleaned up. One of them was the home of Yvette Ramirez Ammerman, whose daughter, Alisa, was found to have lead in her blood.

"She's 9 now," says Ammerman. "She had some issues. She's had some trouble with math. She has some behavioral issues. It's hard to know whether or not that's as a result of the lead."

Ammerman, who now lives with her family in Albuquerque, N.M., is asked how she feels about Asarco today.

"There's a part of me that would like to say, 'In your greed, you allowed this to happen,' " she says.

After more than a century of ore smelting and decades of conflict with regulators and the community, Asarco is about to become history. El Paso must decide what to do with the prime real estate after the remediation is completed.

In Tacoma, Wash., and Omaha, Neb., toxic industrial sites belonging to Asarco were cleaned up and reused for condos, office buildings and a convention center. In El Paso, once the poison has been buried, they can begin to look to the future.

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