Asarco would take us back to a polluted past


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 ( He writes in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Jul 10, 2007 06:37 PM

Mr. Rowley--Having ASARCO as a member of our ever growing region (El Paso, Cruces, Juarez, etc) has been a problem in the past, as you have stated in the above article. ASARCO has committed illegal and devious activities, again, stated above. However, ASARCO has paid the fine, and now wants to re-open its facility due to increased copper prices, which makes sense. We no longer live in an era of big business can do whatever it wants without suffering consequences. We do live in a much more advanced, highly technological world that can overcome the woes of the past. I have written TCEQ and urged them to allow ASARCO to re-open, contingent upon stack-scrubbing and minimizing the waste product to negligible levels. I know this can, and MUST be done. What we have here, Mr. Rowley, is not a copper smelter in the middle of town, but an OPPORTUNITY. We have a chance to become a role-model for the WORLD of how industry, even as hazardous as smelting (there are worse), can be beneficial  and a definite asset to our fantastic region. For us to play the NIMBY card would be in exceptionally poor taste (pun intended) and irresponsible. We need to show the world that an  industrially integrated community can and needs to exist, and we are the best example. Sincerely,  John "Juanito Hayburg" Eyberg    

Jul 16, 2007 10:56 AM


 The debate comes down to money and 300 jobs set against the health and safety of El Paso and Cd. Juarez Mexico, and Sunland Park and Anapra Residents. These people and their water and air have been poisoned by ASARCO smelting lead and copper for over l00 years, in addition to the illegal and criminal incineration - burning of 30,000+ tons of Hazardous  waste that made ASARCO owners at least l00 million dollars.  DOD weapons site wastes were also illegally incineratedat the El Paso ASARCO smelter, at least 5,079 tons over a ten year period. Rocky Mountain Arsenal Waste (Nerve and Chemical Weapons waste) and other weapons site waste were sent to ASARCO by our own federal Government (DOD) even though the Federal Government knew that ASARCO had no federal or state permit to operate a hazardous waste incinerator.

Why should anyone trust ASARCO to be honest and do the right thing now? Our state (Texas) and  Federal Environmental regulatory agencies have always allowed ASARCO and other industries to regulate themselves.  Both the Texas Environmental Agency that issues Air Permits TCEQ, have long been in collusion (pollution collusion) with ASARCO and other big industries. They have historically protected and defended them against people and even cities who oppose their toxic "business".

Several large corporations have said they will not relocate to El Paso if ASARCO is allowed to reopen. Others have said they may consider leaving, El Paso.... What kind of economic development does ASARCO really bring by reopening? Are 300 jobs worth it?

There seems to be a lot of sickness in the area around the El Paso ASARCO smelter. While causation cannot be proved, birth defects, a huge MS cluster and cancer seem to be clustered in west El Paso, Sunland Park, NM, and Anapra, Mexico which is just across the Rio Grande.

 BIG BUSINESS still always gets what it wants. Money and political influence drives environmental decisions, not science. Hopefully, the people of our country will someday rise up and demand elected officials do the job they were sworn to and protect our health and safety, our precious water, the air we breathe, and our earth.

 Illegal and criminal hazardous waste incineration provided great profits to ASARCO,  and there are millions of tons of arsenic and thousands of tons of lead ( and other hazardous chemicals and compounds) in the soil, air, and water. All this is at the expense of the health and well being of El Pasoans and Juarenses.

El Paso Water Utility groundwater studies show the Rio Grande Alluvium below the El Paso ASARCO smelter has been contaminated by arsenic and lead, contaminating the drinking water supply of El Paso, Juarez and Sunland Park, NM, as we use both Rio Grande surface water and Hueco Bolson underground water for our drinking water. So does ASARCO have the right to contaminate the drinking water for nearly 3 million people?

How many jobs and "economic benefit" will offset the loss of people who have died from disease and birth defects, and those who will suffer in the future?


Bill Guerra Addington

El Paso Get the Lead Out, El Paso Regional Sierra Club Group

(I did the media work to get the October l0 New York Times Story "El Paso Smelter Illegally Burned Hazardous Waste For Nearly A Decade" from the long held secret but recently released EPA-DOJ" Confidential: For Settlement Purposes Only" that Heather McMurray obtained from the Dept. Of Justice)