I remember the first time I tasted the air near the Asarco copper smelter in El Paso, Texas. It was 1990, and my wife and I had just moved there from Tucson, Ariz., to start teaching jobs in the English Department at the campus of the University of Texas-El Paso. I soon met two professors who shared my love of hiking, and the three of us were returning home from an all-day trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, when we saw a dense cloud hanging over the freeway near the university.
Then a heavy sulfuric taste suddenly coated my tongue, and I felt like I’d just inhaled fumes from a struck match. I recall saying, “This stuff has got to be toxic.” One professor said flatly, “They open the stacks at night so people don’t see the pollution in the daytime.”
The disquiet I felt at having to teach across the road from Asarco was palpable, and turned to depression whenever I had a night class. On those occasions I’d jump into my car after class l and get away as fast as possible, relaxing as I approached the West Side and our home. We soon learned though, that if the wind blew from the south, bad air would quickly reach us. The telltale sign was a headache that persisted until a fresh breeze swept through the city.
In large part, it was Asarco’s smelter pollution that convinced us in 1997 to move to Las Cruces, N.M., 40 miles up the highway. But even here on rare instances, when an ill wind blows north from Mexico, the normally clear air in the Mesilla Valley hazes over. So we were ecstatic when Asarco shut down in 1999, thanks to a precipitous drop in copper prices. A few years after Asarco closed its doors, the EPA began to investigate, gathering soil samples from the Texas-El Paso campus and surrounding neighborhoods. The results were not surprising to many locals: arsenic and lead in exceedingly high levels. The Environmental Protection Agency named Asarco as the guilty polluter; Asarco officials angrily denied blame, pointing instead to brick-making plants in Mexico.
Then in October 2006, a New York Times article revealed that Asarco and its Corpus Christi subsidiary, Encycle, had conspired to dispose of toxic waste during the 1990s, and that at least 300 tons of that waste were non-metallic residues from a now-defunct chemical warfare depot at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside Denver. Rather than properly recycling the materials, Asarco had burned them in its El Paso smelter.
The El Paso community was outraged, and many residents, including some former Asarco employees who’d long suspected the smelter as the source of their illnesses, came forward to protest. Activists then discovered, through public information requests to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that the EPA and Asarco had reached an agreement in 1999, that included a landmark penalty against the company of $20 million. Incredibly, the details of Asarco’s illegal abuses were withheld from the public and kept secret for seven years. The Times reported that the Justice Department lawyer who negotiated the 1999 settlement explained that the “EPA memorandum detailing Asarco’s violations was for internal use and was not meant to become public.”
This would be horror story enough, but guess what: Copper prices are up again, and Asarco wants to reopen.
The company has begun a slick campaign to convince area residents that reopening would create 380 high-paying jobs. A slick TV commercial shows a job-hungry mob of hard-hat-wearing folks yelling in unison: ”I want to work for Asarco!”
Asarco has applied for a new air permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, whose executive director said recently that Asarco might be able to renew operations if it agreed to repair corroded equipment. The public comment period ends June 18, and a commission hearing may come as soon as this August.
Not surprisingly, there is widespread opposition to reopening the smelter. El Paso city officials have vowed to fight Asarco, and the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, strongly opposes copper-smelting operations, as does the New Mexico Environment Department. Astonishingly, Asarco has its supporters. Recently, I heard a conservative talk-radio host in El Paso lamenting the lack of progress in the city: “How are you going to attract new businesses here when they see how you’ve treated Asarco?”
The better question is this: “Why would anyone want to move to a city that has a copper smelter in the middle of town?”
Robert Rowley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Las Cruces, New Mexico.