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Refinery's Smokestacks Have Avid Fans in El Paso

Two smokestacks in El Paso — remnants of the smelting company ASARCO — remind many residents of a legacy of environmental damage. But to a local group, the stacks, now slated for demolition, are landmarks worth saving.

Seen is the ASARCO Smelter site on Sunday July 8, 2012 in El Paso, Texas. The site began operations as a lead smelter in 1887 and started producing copper in 1910. Plagued by a series of environmental problems and a slump in the price of copper, Asarco declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005 and shut down.

Robert Ardovino grew up within four miles of El Paso’s smokestacks — remnants of the copper smelter run by ASARCO.

“I experienced everything that was wrong with that company,” Ardovino said of ASARCO, which in 2009 settled one of the largest environmental bankruptcies in U.S. history, after being accused for years of polluting and contaminating El Paso’s air and soil. 

Despite that, Ardovino wants to prevent the demolition of the stacks. 

Ardovino and Gary Sapp, another El Paso resident, run the Save the Stacks movement, and they say the smokestacks are a historic landmark. The planned demolition of the stacks is part of a state-run remediation to clean up the land ASARCO occupied. 

The company acquired the plant in 1899, and the refinery’s smokestacks were added later. The taller one, built in 1967, is more than 800 feet. The other, built in 1951, is close to 600 feet. 

ASARCO, citing economic challenges, closed the refinery in 1999. In 2002, it considered reopening the plant, but critics cited concerns over the contamination. Analyses found high levels of lead and arsenic had leaked from the plant, and later reports suggested the company had illegally burned toxic waste.

Health and environmental concerns led to a six-year legal battle between ASARCO and local environmental groups over whether the refinery would follow environmental standards. ASARCO filed for bankruptcy in 2005, and reached a bankruptcy settlement of $1.79 billion in 2009. The company abandoned plans to reopen the El Paso refinery. 

Estimates suggest it would cost $14 million to maintain the stacks for 50 years, though that figure is based solely on the blueprint of the stacks, said Roberto Puga, the trustee managing the remediation. 

Puga said that money from the remediation budget could not be diverted to preserve the stacks. As part of ASARCO’s bankruptcy settlement, the state-run trust received $52 million to clean up the site. 

Ardovino said Save the Stacks would conduct a cost analysis. It has until November to make its case and raise money. If the stacks were to remain standing, they would be privately maintained, Sapp said.

“It kind of pays for itself,” he said. He suggested that if the stacks were made structurally sound, they could host an observation deck or be the basis of a new town cultural center.

Veronica Carbajal, a lawyer representing the group Ex-ASARCO Workers, said the stacks may stand on a foundation of slag, a smelting byproduct harmful to the environment.

If that is so, keeping the stacks could present a “catastrophic” environmental threat, Carbajal said. 

But Sapp said destroying the stacks could produce dust that must be controlled. 

Because demolishing the stacks would have mitigated concerns about the foundation, the trust never conducted an environmental analysis of the site, Puga said. Save the Stacks must prove that preserving them would pose no threat, he said.

Puga stressed a need for community dialogue.

“There’s people,” he said, “who are very passionate on both sides of the debate.”

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