Monday, February 16, 2009

Copper Controversy

 Note to readers: this posting is an early response to next week’s class prompt. It seemed appropriate to post today since this is the one year anniversary since I began my blog on February 16, 2008.

Since I moved to El Paso, in view from my window, my car, or when I take a walk, is the distinctive red and white Asarco tower. Asarco has been a part of the central El Paso landscape for over 110 years. Recently the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) voted to void all permits for the Asarco copper smelter to reopen. This has been a painful divisive process for the entire city. Many of us view Asarco as a polluter and a company that has indiscriminately distributed a disgusting smoky haze, sour air that burns the throat and dangerous heavy metals, including lead and arsenic among others, over three states for over 100 years. However, the old-timers see it as being a company that faithfully employed many over those same 110 years. Unfortunately the company has been both.

Several years ago, El Paso discovered through testing that heavy metals occurred at alarming levels in homes in the Kern Place, Mission Hills, Rim Road and Sunset Heights areas. All of these are desirable neighborhoods quite close to the university, some of the homes valued at in the millions. It was determined that Asarco which had temporarily closed a few years earlier was the most likely culprit and the Environmental Protection Agency was brought in to do extensive testing of every home, front and back yards, in the affected areas. Those that were determined to have dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals were slated to have all of their topsoil removed and replaced. A huge undertaking.

So my neighborhood was scheduled for testing, mailings went out in which we detailed what was the best time to catch us home, was there easy access to front and back yards, did we have dogs, etc. I filled out my form requesting 24 hour notice to confine my dogs. Do you believe in fairy tales? I had spent two years at my former house, planting desert plants, trees and removing the rock coated “zero-scaping” the previous owner had installed. My neighbor had rocks for the front yard and scrub in the back. Some months later, I received the results of my “tests” including details for the alleged testing done in the back yard where I housed two rather large, very protective dogs. Would you go into such a yard uninvited? My next door neighbor, on the other hand, was notified that all of her topsoil would be removed and replaced. Our yards are separated by a chain-link fence. Do you have an explanation of how her yard could be dangerously contaminated while mine was perfectly safe? That’s when I decided the whole thing was a scam. It was going to cost too damn much money to replace the topsoil over miles of closely inhabited urban neighborhoods. So my personal belief is that they did not test every yard. They selectively tested enough to look good on paper. No one came to my house, but there were their test results. It reminded me of the Bible story about one shall be taken and one shall be left behind. Seemed very arbitrary to me.

A vicious battle at both state and local level has been waged for many years now. Asarco has long asserted that they have in no way been responsible for polluting the soil or the air. The web-links below are all articles that appeared in the El Paso Times over the course of six days this February. Asarco lost its bid to reopen and begin smelting copper again. Now that the battle is over, there is no secret that 100 acres of prime real estate is dangerously full of carcinogens, heavy metals and hopelessly polluted soil. So who is responsible for paying for the mess? Asarco, in the middle of the battle, filed for bankruptcy while still fighting to reopen and saying they had done nothing to damage the environment. The state is setting aside $52 million but we know from past disasters like Love Canel and even other Asarco plants in other states that the cost of cleaning a site could run as much as five times that or more. Are the taxpayers to foot the bill? El Paso Times ran an online poll with one of the articles. Out of 1,373 votes, almost 90% voted no to the question posed, “Should taxpayers foot the massive bill to clean up the Asarco site?”

According to the El Paso Times:
“The state has said $52 million will be needed and that the company will fund a trust to pay for remediation of the 100-acre site. Others, including Texas Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, say the cleanup may cost up to $250 million and taxpayers may wind up paying the bill. The higher estimate is based on the fact that in Tacoma, Wash., it has taken 26 years and $100 million to clean up the Asarco site that was shut down in 1983. And, in Omaha, Neb., 10 years after the Asarco plant was demolished -- and a riverfront park put on top of it -- the EPA today continues to clean lead from contaminated homes. The cleanup is costing $400 million and contaminated homes span a 20-mile radius. Asarco announced last week that it was ending all plans to reopen its 110-year-old smelter plant in El Paso. The announcement has local and state officials scurrying to make sure Asarco money is secured to clean up the site so that El Paso taxpayers are not left with a multimillion-dollar cleanup bill. The El Paso City Council is continuing to fight any permits Asarco is seeking and monitoring the company's bankruptcy proceedings.”

Bracamontes, Ramon.“TCEQ says money to clear Asarco smelter site secured.” El Paso Times. 15 February 2009.)

As in Aesop’s Fable, the question is: who is going to bell the cat? The moral is: things are easier said than done. Or perhaps in this case and many others across the country and throughout the world, it is cheaper to take the easy way and trash the environment irresponsibly rather than spend the money to do it right and safely the first time around.

One of my earlier posts referred to a Washington state law requiring manufacturers to be responsible for the cost of the entire life-cycle of what they make and sale. That will drastically change the cost of things like televisions, computers, plastics and a host of other products. But the reality is that we have not been paying full cost for these products since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We shove atomic testing into Utah and Nevada because no one lives there. We buy cheap products from Wal-Mart and then complain about human rights and employment conditions in China, India and Sri Lanka. Southern cotton mills gave everyone brown lung so we ship our cotton overseas to be processed because health care costs and union issues grew to be not cost-effective. Someone pays the price with their health or their life somewhere.

I am quoting from my original first post on this blog that I wrote exactly a year ago today:

“As responsible world citizens, we must begin to make ourselves aware of absolutely everything we consume. For each and every choice, we must consider where it came from, do we really need it, will we actually use it, and where will it go when we are finished with it.”

I still believe this. The distinctive Asarco tower has loomed over El Paso for over a century and may have caused the deaths of unknown numbers of workers and people who lived in its shadow in “Smelter Town.” Will there be even more health hazards when they begin the tear down? Over 110 years, over 100 acres of land and who pays the price? We do. Maybe not now, not this year, but we are all responsible. We have always been and we always will be.

I look out my window and I see the Asarco tower. It is still there.

Additional information from El Paso Times newspaper. There was a problem with the hyperlinks. Please copy the following web-links into your browser if you are interested in reading further about this controversy. "At Asarco’s Request, TCEQ Voids All Air Permits for Smelter" "If $52 million isn’t enough taxes will pay for Asarco clean up" "Asarco Clean-up: Taxpayers shouldn’t be stuck with the bill" "UTEP students asked to pitch plans for Asarco land" "TCEQ says money to clear Asarco smelter site secured" "Video memories of Asarco"

1 comment:

Elpaso said...

Very good post! For more information you can go to

In 1998 in a confidential-for-settlement-purposes-only document (never intended for the light of day) the EPA told the Federal DOJ that ASARCO had burned secret hazardous wastes for nearly a decade --- for profit.

The Site may now be scheduled for "clean-up" but the same people who are overseeing this remediation are the ones who covered-up the secret waste.

The IBWC tells us that it will cost 25 million dollars just to clean up the dirt under the American canal (our drinking water) right next to ASARCO and old smeltertown. 25 MILLION just for that. Right now the M.P.O. transportation group has approved the funds to build an elevated toll road right through there (right on top of Paisano) next to ASARCO through the worst of the worst contamination.

It is time to ask our environmental agencies for honesty and truth.