A Toxic Century: Mining Giant Asarco Must Clean Up Mess After years of polluting and contaminating the environment, the American Smelting and Refining Company's notorious copper-smelting plant in El Paso, Texas, will be cleaned up this year. Asarco will also pay $1.79 billion to settle claims for pollution at more than 80 sites throughout the country.
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A Toxic Century: Mining Giant Must Clean Up Mess

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A Toxic Century: Mining Giant Must Clean Up Mess

A Toxic Century: Mining Giant Must Clean Up Mess

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It was the largest environmental bankruptcy in U.S. history. In December, the American Smelting and Refining Company, ASARCO, agreed to pay nearly $2 billion to settle claims for hazardous waste pollution at more than 80 sites around the country. Cleanup will begin this year on one of ASARCO's most notorious properties, the copper smelter in El Paso, Texas.

The aim is to remove toxins from the soil and groundwater, but as NPR's John Burnett reports, the legacy of bitterness in the community will be harder to erase.

JOHN BURNETT: 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.

Miguel Beltran, 82, is a former maintenance worker.

Mr. MIGUEL BELTRAN (Former Maintenance Worker, ASARCO): You can't get no job here in El Paso compared to ASARCO. ASARCO is the best place to work. We were just like a family.

BURNETT: ASARCO was part of the mining empire of the storied Guggenheim family that made the steel that helped the U.S. military win two world wars. But the world changed.

Widespread opposition to ASARCO in El Paso and across the river in Juarez, Mexico became a case study of a community's fight for environmental justice. Last year, the EPA turned down ASARCO's request for a new air emissions permit.

Today, many people see 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 slag field looking up at an 800-foot smokestack emblazoned with ASARCO. They belong to an anti-smelter group called Get the Lead Out.

Mr. JIM KELLY (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 in the country.

Ms. DEBBIE KELLY (Get the Lead Out): They marketed it very well. And the people of El Paso were brainwashed to believe that this was the most wonderful thing El Paso could possibly have was this tall, polluting, contaminating smokestack.

BURNETT: In December, Texas appointed a trustee to clean up the 400-acre site, which is contaminated with a periodic table of heavy metals: lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, selenium and zinc. ASARCO is now a bankrupt subsidiary of the mining giant Grupo Mexico. The company 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, and finally, cap the whole site with asphalt. A big question is what to do with the iconic brick smokestack.

John Cook is mayor of El Paso.

Mayor JOHN COOK (El Paso, Texas): You know, I would love to leave the smokestack there as a reminder, sort of a bookmark in history.

BURNETT: But whose history? The United States, or Mexico's?

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.

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

BURNETT: 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.

State Senator Eliot Shapleigh was one of those who led the fight to close down ASARCO.

State Senator ELIOT SHAPLEIGH (Democrat, Texas): It is very clear that a majority of what came out of that flue and was deposited over 100 years landed in Mexico.

BURNETT: 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.

Longtime resident Consuelo Renteria is asked what she thinks when she sees the great chimney to the north with the barren Franklin Mountains in the distance.

Ms. CONSUELO RENTERIA: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: I think it's a symbol of our rage, she says, because it hurt many people here. The people of the United States, they'll fix everything over there. And here, what will happen? Nothing.

Ms. RENTERIA: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: The corporate office of ASARCO in Tucson, Arizona, 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, quote, "a way of life within the company."

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

Pat Escandon and all of the men in his family worked at ASARCO most of their adult lives.

Mr. PAT ESCANDON: Everybody was healthy. I even had - my uncles were there. And they're all - passed away in their late 80s. My dad was 87. I've never had a headache.

BURNETT: Despite his enduring company loyalty, ASARCO's impact on public health in El Paso is irrefutable.

A landmark 1972 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that more than half the children living within a mile of the smelter had levels of lead in their blood four times today's acceptable limit.

A follow-up study determined that these outwardly healthy children had lower IQs and slower reflexes. The El Paso 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.

After these findings, ASARCO discontinued its lead smelting operation in El Paso. Today, more than a thousand 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.

Ms. YVETTE RAMIREZ AMMERMAN: She's nine now, and she's had some issues. She's having trouble with math. She has some behavioral issues. It's hard to know whether or not that's as a result of the lead.

BURNETT: Ammerman, who now lives with her family in Albuquerque, is asked how she feels about ASARCO today. Her response represents the anger and helplessness that's still palpable in El Paso.

Ms. AMMERMAN: Well, I can't say that on the radio. I would have their children be poisoned, and have them feel it. No, I wouldn't do that. But there's a part of me that would like to say, in your greed, you allowed this to happen.

BURNETT: 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, Washington and Omaha, Nebraska, 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.

John Burnett, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: See a timeline of ASARCO's history, which dates back to the 19th century, at our Web site: npr.org.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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