El Paso, TX
El Paso has a complex history. Originally it was part of Paso del Norte and belonged to Mexico. Ownership passed to the U.S. after the war of 1846-48 when Mexico lost almost half of its national territory. With the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo in 1848, the border was fixed at the Rio Grande River with El Paso occupying the southwestern tip of Texas. Through this process El Paso became part of the United States, while its sister settlement on the south side of the river, remained with Mexico. The Mexican section of Paso del Norte eventually became Ciudad Juarez, a city separated from El Paso by a river and national border, yet linked by shared history, culture, and language.
The railroads transformed mining in Mexico. Before 1880 copper was processed through a centuries-old small-scale patio method for deriving precious metals from ore. With the development of Asarco’s rail system, small-scale mining operations became huge labor and technology-intensive industries whose ownership was concentrated in U.S. corporate hands and whose profits flowed to the United States. By 1912 the value of mining operations in Mexico was estimated at $323,600,000. Of this wealth, Mexicans owned approximately $15,000,000, or less than 5%. U.S. companies, with Asarco prominent among them, held over 60%. Understood in this way, Asarco was one of the first transnational corporations, and its extraordinary growth depended on the complex relationships that bound Mexico to the United States.
In 1910 the El Paso smelter was expanded to process copper as well as lead. The ores produced at Asarco’s Mexican mines were transported to El Paso to be smelted. Mexican workers also crossed the border to work at the smelter, swelling the population of the developing city. In 1890 the population of El Paso was approximately 10,000; by 1910 it had reached 39,279; by 1925 its numbers had virtually doubled to 77,560. The population was, and continues to be, primarily Hispanic.
The Asarco smelter was central to El Paso’s economy. By 1927 The El Paso Herald reported that the smelter employed 800 workers and commanded a “million dollar payroll”. In 1929 the El Paso Evening Post described the smelter as “the largest and practically the only customs smelter of its type in the world.” “During an average year,” the Post wrote, “the El Paso smelter…receives more than 310,000 tons of copper, 30,000 tons of lead, 61,000 ounces of gold and 5,000,000 ounces of silver.” The wealth produced from this vast quantity of metal was estimated at $22,000,000 for the preceding year. In 1948 the plant was again expanded to incorporate a zinc smelting facility.
Even as other businesses settled in El Paso, the smelter continued to dominate the city’s industrial landscape. In 1952 Ben Roberts, the smelter’s manager, addressing the Rotary Club at Hotel Paso del Norte, discussed the strategic importance of the railroads, claiming that 25% of industrial shipments arriving in El Paso were destined for Asarco.
As a pharmacist, Piñon was well aware of the dangers of lead, arsenic, cadmium and other byproducts of smelting. Piñon had observed physical problems in El Paso neighborhoods and among Asarco workers. He thought the problems he had observed could be related to smelter emissions. It was common knowledge that Asarco’s emissions traveled across the border into Mexico, as well as into neighboring New Mexico, and that Asarco often waited until the winds blew towards Mexico to increase its production. Piñon was especially concerned about the people who lived south of the Rio Grande River, in Juarez.
For many years Piñon was virtually the lone voice calling for investigation of Asarco’s emissions.
The media was pretty taken in by a group of people who called themselves the Industrial Betterment Council. This council was composed of leaders…within the various polluting industries of El Paso…its job was to report on the various improvements that the industries of El Paso were bringing about to change the pollution problems.
[One news writer] became the spokesperson for the polluting industries in El Paso…actually lauding the industry because of all the money that was being spent at the time on behalf of the city of El Paso. But to me, it was just a…fabrication.
- Isaac Marcason, Metal Magic, Farrar, Straus, 1949
- Gilbert González and Raúl Fernández, A Century of Chicano History: Empire, Nations and Migration, Routledge, 2003.
- Interview with Joe Piñon, El Paso, Texas, July 2006.
In 1970, following passage of the Clean Air Act, the City of El Paso sued Asarco over its sulfur dioxide emissions. During the process of discovery Asarco submitted documentation of its emissions to the city for the first time, Between 1969 and 1971 Asarco’s reports showed that it had emitted 1012 metric tons of lead, 508 metric tons of zinc, 11 metric tons of cadmium and one metric ton of arsenic (Landrigan, et al). On the basis of these documented emissions Bernard Rosenblum, Director of the El Paso City-County Health Department, estimated that 2700 persons between the ages of one and 19 would have blood lead levels at or above 40 micrograms per 100 milliliters—the safety standard for lead in blood at the time—and that residents within a four-mile radius of the smelter were likely to be affected. Alarmed, Dr. Rosenblum contacted the Communicable Disease Center (now the Centers for Disease Control) in Atlanta, Georgia, which sent Dr. Philip Landrigan and a team of researchers to investigate. Dr. Landrigan recalls that the National Academy of Sciences had just released a report stating:
It was well-known that certain smelters emitted lead, that it might be a problem for livestock living near smelters,but that people didn’t have to worry, that lead from smelters had never been shown to be a health hazard. So that was the context that surrounded our initial trip to El Paso.
The El Paso City/County Health Department had sampled air, soil and dust in a variety of locations. Dr. Landrigan’s team plotted the results in geographical relationship to the smelter.
That first study established that the smelter was responsible for lead contamination in air, soil and dust. Based on these initial results, the CDC research team conducted a pilot study of blood lead levels in children attending a nursery school in Kern Place, a prosperous neighborhood located approximately a mile from Asarco’s smokestacks.
The blood lead standard at that time was 40 micrograms per deciliter. In other words, a level below 40 was thought be OK. A level above 40 was cause for concern. What we found in our pilot test of these children from the preschool nursery was that about 3/4 of them had blood lead levels above 40 micrograms per deciliter. That immediately set off alarms, because even in the worst inner city neighborhoods…we had never seen 3/4 of the children with blood lead levels above 40.
Dr. Landrigan and his associates set up a plan to sample blood lead levels in children within approximately four miles of the smelter. They drew concentric circles around the smelter and divided them into zones: Zone One was set at a radius of approximately one mile from the smelter, and included the small Mexican-American community of Smeltertown, located immediately next to Asarco and almost directly under the smokestacks. Zone Two was set at a radius of about 2.5 miles, and Zone Three was set at approximately four miles. Dr. Landrigan recalls that in Zone One the team “knocked on every door…Zone Two was every second door, and ZoneThree…was every third or fourth door.” At each household blood samples were taken; soil, dust and paint samples were also taken; and if pottery was used in cooking, the pottery was tested for lead content.
When the results were released Asarco argued that the lead did not come from the smelter, but from gasoline emissions along Interstate 10. But tests disproved this argument; the studies done by Dr. Landrigan’s team demonstrated that Asarco was responsible for the lead pollution found in Zones One, Two and Three. However, the researchers confronted another problem—the lack of studies demonstrating that the lead levels they had found could cause harm to children. The National Academy of Sciences study had asserted that lead from smelters was not harmful to human health.
In those days not too much was known about the toxicity of lead in children. Pediatric lead poisoning of course had been known since the early years of the 20th century…But lead poisoning was understood as an all or none disease. Either a child got terribly sick from a high-dose ingestion, or it wasn’t an issue. People treated it almost as if it was a common cold; either you’re sick or you’re not sick, and there was nothing in between.
The CDC team was asked by Dr. Rosenblum to design further tests to determine whether children in El Paso were damaged by their exposure to Asarco’s lead emissions. Meanwhile, other interests were converging on the El Paso lead controversy. The El Paso Pediatric Society issued a bulletin stating, “there is no evidence that there is a lead intoxication problem outside of Smeltertown” (quoted in Shapleigh 19). That same year the Lead Surveillance Committee of the El Paso County Medical Society announced, “any further massive blood lead sampling outside the Smeltertown-Old Fort Bliss area is at this time unjustified” (Shapleigh 19).
Asarco also commissioned its own study which was carried out by Dr. James McNeil, an El Paso pediatrician, and Dr. Potasnick, a psychologist from the El Paso School District. McNeil’s study, funded by the International Lead Zinc Research Association, a group connected to the metal industry, concluded that blood lead levels of 40 to 80 micrograms per deciliter were safe, provided a child received good nutrition. McNeil also supported Asarco’s claims that the children’s elevated lead levels were based on exposure to lead-based paint, rather than company emissions.*
In 1972 a Lead Surveillance Committee of the El Paso County Medical Society was formed. It included Dr. James McNeil, Dr. Bernard Rosenblum and Dr. Jorge Magaña, who would later become head of the City/County Health Department. The Lead Surveillance Committee took the position that further testing was unnecessary. They rejected a $50,000 grant from the CDC for Dr. Landrigan to continue his research. In 1973 they wrote the following letter to Dr. Landrigan:
I regret to inform you that our Board of Health unanimously voted to cancel the remaininlg portion of your study and in its place accept Dr. McNeil’s study from the International Lead Zinc Research Organization.
Dr. Landrigan recalls that the team had prepared a study design and returned to El Paso in the summer of 1973.
The CDC team administered Wexler IQ tests and a finger-tapping test of physical reflexes to children. A group of children with blood lead levels below 40 was also tested, but examiners did not know which group each child belonged to.
We found a significant difference between the two groups of children. The children who had blood lead levels over 40 had an average IQ on the performance scale of the Wexler Test that was about 7 points lower than the children who had the lower blood lead levels. This was a very statistically significant detriment in the kids’ IQ.
We also found they had a much slower reaction time. We had a finger tapping test we had designed that counted how many taps a child could do in 10 seconds. And we found that the children with the elevated blood levels were distinctly slower that their peers on this test.
Dr. Landrigan’s research, and the results produced by the CDC team, contributed significantly to scientific knowledge about lead. It is now widely accepted that lead is toxic at levels as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter. It is particularly damaging to the developing brains of children. Dr. Landrigan refers to this as “subclinical toxicity.”
* Dr. James McNeil Letter–Spanish version
- Senator Eliot Shapleigh, Asarco in El Paso: September 2008
- Interview with Dr. Philip Landrigan, September 2009, New York City, New York
In 1972, as medical research teams were beginning to study blood lead levels in El Paso’s children, court proceedings began between the City of El Paso and State of Texas on one side, and Asarco on the other. One focus of the case made by the city and state was the level of contamination in Smeltertown, the Hispanic community located beneath Asarco’s stacks.
Smeltertown fell entirely within Zone One of Dr. Landrigan’s study. Many of Smeltertown’s male residents worked at Asarco; some families had lived there for generations, since crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In her study of Smeltertown, Monica Perales argues that ASARCO, through its Mexican subsidiaries and trans-national shipping routes, helped to create a “larger industrial zone” that transformed Mexicans into industrial workers and encouraged Mexico-to-U.S. migration (Perales, 5-6). Some workers and their families followed the shipping routes across the border, settled in Smeltertown, and found work at Asarco or in nearby industries. The residents of Smeltertown built and owned their homes, but did not own the land on which their homes were located. Sewage and water systems were built by residents. Originally outside city limits, by 1972 Smeltertown had become part of the growing city of El Paso; it was an embarrassment to city officials and the company. According to Daniel Solis, a former resident, “Smeltertown essentially was an eyesore for El Paso.”
Smeltertown was a close-knit, vibrant community. Monica Perales maintains that despite their marginal status, Smeltertown residents experienced a strong sense of identity that “resulted from a legacy of habitation…and was rooted in common language, immigration, work experience, socioeconomic conditions, religious traditions and cultural activities. These elements bound them together as a family, and contributed to what was a sense of ‘emotional ownership’ that Esmeltianos felt for Smeltertown” (Perales, 5).
The residents of Smeltertown experienced the discomforts of living with Asarco’s emissions on a daily basis. Sulfur dioxide, a major byproduct of smelting, creates foul odors and can cause breathing problems and irritation of the eyes, throat and lungs. Daniel Solis, a former resident of Smeltertown, recalls:
In July and August…our folks would bring us into the house, because the smoke, the pollution, the sulfur, would settle into our community for about 2 or 3 hours every day in the mid-day when there was no breeze to take that away. When we would breathe that, we could not be outside because we were constantly coughing. So nobody can tell me that there was no ill effect on the majority of the folks that lived in Smeltertown.
Mary Romero writes that Smeltertown families tried early on to get the city to respond to problems of pollution.
Residents had organized in the 1950’s in an unsuccessful attempt to get the city to pave Smeltertown streets and thus control the dust problem. Several parents had sought medical attention for children born with brain damage and other illnesses; not one case, however, had been diagnosed as lead poisoning. Past attempts to label health problems as pollution-related illnesses had been unsuccessful (Romero 35).
Daniel recalls that his young siblings were terrified of the painful injections. Because of the pain and fear experienced by the children, some families withdrew their children from treatment. Romero writes that parents felt “unable to justify the painful treatment,” because the lead in the children’s blood did not produce perceptible (clinical) symptoms. Some families concluded that the children’s bodies had adapted to lead and were being made sick by chelation, not by lead exposure. One of her informants said,
When my children were given the medicine, they got sick. They gave the children shots in the morning and by the afternoon they were sick. [We] believed that removing the lead may have made the children sick (quoted in Romero, 34)
During the trial, Ken Nelson, Director of Environmental Sciences for Asarco, said that issues of lead contamination in Smeltertown had been “overlooked” by the company (Shapleigh, 15). Asarco officials said it had “never occurred” to them to include Smeltertown in the company’s air pollution monitoring system (Shapleigh, 15). A formidable team of trained physicians and researchers testified about the health impacts on children living in Smeltertown. When the defense ended its case, Asarco chose not to present a defense. Instead, in 1972, the parties agreed to a settlement agreement that included fines, commitments to install new emissions control equipment, and a fund for medical care for children with elevated blood levels.
Perales argues that in the process leading to the legal settlement the needs and desires of many Esmeltianos were ignored. She writes, “While the company and city argued health and environmental policy, Smeltertown residents were concerned with preserving their community…In attending community meetings and telling their stories to the press, the residents continually stated their refusal to move and their desire to maintain a way of life that had existed for generations.” Ultimately, Asarco and the City reached an agreement over the objections of Smeltertown residents, that community members should be evicted and the community destroyed. Because the residents of Smeltertown did not own the land on which their homes were built, they were not eligible for relocation benefits (Romero 31). Some residents were eligible for public housing, and the city arranged for them to have priority access to new public housing projects. Others simply moved away.
Mary Romero points out that the demolition of Smeltertown represented the least expensive solution for the city and Asarco. She writes, “Decontamination of the area and monitoring the health of Smeltertown residents demanded expensive economic commitments, not only from ASARCO, but from the city as well” (Romero, 31). She points to a statement by Asarco’s physician that the continuation of Smeltertown would have required a greater commitments of funds and services than either the city or company was willing to provide.
If these families elect to move, it will of course simplify my job in relation to their continued exposure. If they elect to remain and are allowed to remain, then I think our interests for their children and their families should provide more than dust control. It should also provide drainage, it should provide garbage collection; it should provide sewage disposal; all of these factors as far as I am concerned are important to their makeup and their health (quoted in Romero 31-32).
The demolition of Smeltertown did not resolve the problems of Asarco’s emissions. According to Romero, the issue was first defined as a community health problem, but was later redefined as a problem of lead poisoning specific to Smeltertown. She writes,
Restricting government action to Smeltertown fulfilled several objectives for various local interest groups. Business and industry were reassured that environmental policies would not threaten future growth. Workers were assured that pollution abatement would be placed second to economic stability, and therefore the chances of plant shutdowns or corporate flight were lessened…And city and state officials were able to ignore contamination and possible health threats in other parts of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico (Romero, 27-28).
Daniel Solis argues that the eradication of Smeltertown destroyed a significant part of Mexican-American history in El Paso. Like Romero, he points out that the solution chosen by the city and the company redirected attention away from the wider problems of contamination of children, workers and communities in the region. The problems resulting from Asarco’s emissions have resurfaced continually over the years. Today, they continue to be the focus of community struggles with the company, as community members press for information about the reach and extent of contamination on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 1978, 5 years after the court settlement in which Asarco agreed to install new emissions control equipment, Dr. Bernard Rosenblum of the El Paso City-County Health Department wrote that El Paso continued to have one of the highest levels of lead in air in the United States. He warned that air lead concentrations in the city were increasing.
In 1979, after several postponements, Asarco finally completed the installation of emissions control equipment at the El Paso plant. In 1982 the zinc plant was shut down; in 1985, the lead plant was closed; in 1986 the cadmium plant was demolished. In 1989 Asarco approved the expansion of copper production facilities at the El Paso plant.
- Perales, Monica. Smeltertown: A Biography of a Mexican-American Community, 1880-1973. PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 2004.
- Romero, Mary, “The Death of Smeltertown: A Case Study of Lead Poisoning in a Chicano Community,” in The Chicano Struggle, Bilingual Press, 1984
- Shapleigh, Eliot. Asarco in El Paso: September 2008. El Paso, Texas
- Interview with Dr. Philip Landrigan, September 2009, New York City, New York
- Interview with Daniel Solis, excerpted from the film, Borders of Resistance (dir. Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson, forthcoming, fall 2011)
- See also, Perales, Monica. Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
- Many thanks to Alex Becker for his invaluable research assistance.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s Asarco’s plants around the U.S. were receiving heightened scrutiny from local, state and federal officials, workers, and environmental groups. In the early 1970’s high levels of arsenic were discovered in the urine of children living in Ruston, Washington, next to an Asarco copper smelter, and a University of Washington researcher found that Ruston-area soils had eight times the amount of arsenic as the national average. Members of the United Steelworkers union in Ruston created a newspaper, “The Smelterworker,” whose first issue explored the problem of arsenic exposure. According to Rodger Jones, the newspaper’s first editor, “If they had concerns about the kids in Ruston and their exposure to arsenic, what about people working in the plant? There’s got to be some concern there!” Eventually the entire town of Ruston was declared a Superfund site.
In the early 1980’s the National Public Health Service found that cadmium from Asarco’s Globeville, Colorado plant, had severely damaged workers’ health and threatened local neighborhoods; the plant was closed and several housing projects were demolished because of concerns about cadmium contamination. Asarco facilities in New Jersey, California, New Mexico and Arizona were also closed.
In 1989 a Steelworkers local in Hayden, Arizona discovered that Asarco had been systematically falsifying the results of lung function tests for its Hispanic workers, inflating them by 15% in order to conceal damage to their lungs. The union brought in Dr. David Parkinson from the Department of Community and Preventative Medicine, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, to investigate. In a letter to ASARCO’s medical director, Charles Hine, Dr. Parkinson listed a number of pressing medical concerns, including the following:
(1) ASARCO’s X-ray machine was not adequate to test larger individuals, and the results of the X-rays were not being properly reported to OSHA.
(2) Pulmonary function testing equipment was obsolete and had not been calibrated for at least two years, so that the readings it produced could not be trusted to be accurate.
(3) The medical records did not consistently show blood lead and urine arsenic test results.
(4) Chemistry test results suggested that workers had illnesses like diabetes or liver enzyme abnormalities—but there was no evidence that the workers had been informed.
In an extensive report, entitled “ARSENIC and ASARCO: The right to know, the right to live,” Willie Craig, President of the local, wrote, “If a Hispanic employee has a pulmonary function of 85% of capacity, when using the Company’s method, this employee is still rated has having 100% of pulmonary function…This practice instills a false sense of security within the employee.” And Craig added, “It seems this practice could have a direct effect on the higher than normal lung cancer rate in the Hayden/Winkleman area” (emphasis in the original document).
Craig also raised questions about ASARCO’s fugitive emissions and “the new technology of the flash furnace that began operation in 1983” and which “has greatly increased the amounts and concentrations of carcinogenic substances produced by the Hayden Plant.” He concluded:
“It is my belief that the investigation performed has shown that ASARCO has willingly misrepresented medical evidence as gathered through the medical surveillance program at the Hayden Plant Clinic…Also ASARCO has conspired…to distort, misrepresent and mislead its employees, the public sector and various state and federal agencies [regarding] important information needed to protect the workforce and surrounding communities from excessive arsenic exposure.”
In the mid-1990’s the Copper Fist Coalition in Hayden, Arizona organized over 200 people to file a class action lawsuit against Asarco for serious health impacts, including cancers and birth defects believed to have resulted from Asarco’s emissions. The suit was thrown out in early court hearings, then reinstated. It was eventually settled during ASARCO’s bankruptcy. The community was awarded $4.8 million, of which 60% is estimated to have gone to attorneys to pay legal fees.
In the early 1990’s, with copper prices falling and many plants shuttered, Asarco contracted with the Department of Defense to accept hazardous waste at its subsidiary, Encycle, in Corpus Christi, Texas. The waste came from DOD facilities at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Rocky Flats in Colorado and Tooele, Utah, among others, where napalm, saarin nerve gas, cluster bombs, plutonium and white phosphorous had been produced.
The liquid “quench water” waste was shipped to Encycle, where a concentrate was made and shipped it to Asarco smelters for incineration.
In 1998 the EPA discovered that Encycle/Asarco, rather than storing the Department of Defense-originated hazardous waste, had been illegally burning it at its East Helena, Montana and El Paso plants. It is likely that the waste was shipped to other smelters as well. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) some industrial activities can be regulated as recycling rather than waste management. Encycle and Asarco insisted that the materials they received from the Department of Defense had significant amounts of copper and therefore qualified as replacement for copper ore. EPA concluded, however, that Asarco had engaged in “sham recycling”—incinerating materials with no discernable copper content. The EPA report clearly documented this charge, demonstrating that for almost a decade at least 247 shipments, totaling approximately 5,079 tons of hazardous waste “that had virtually no metals value” had been received at Encycle and “incorporated into Ecycle alleged ‘products.’ The EPA wrote, “This activity, plain and simple, was illegal treatment and disposal of hazardous waste, since the wastes could not have contributed in any significant way to the production of the metals concentrates.”
In 1998 the EPA and Asarco signed two consent decrees, designed to resolve concerns about Asarco’s operations and ensure compliance with federal regulations. The first dealt with general operations, safety procedures and training at all Asarco’s remaining plants. The second specifically addressed the illegal incineration of hazardous waste. Under the terms of the two agreements Asarco was to submit to regular inspections, produce periodic reports, strengthen its employee safety procedures, and pay over $50 million in fines. In El Paso the company made a commitment to the City of El Paso to spend $370,000 a year to pave city roads.
Under the terms of agreement Asarco did not acknowledge any culpability for hazardous waste incineration. (In 2006 Tom Aldrich, Vice President for Environmental Affairs at Asarco, restated the company’s official position: that the materials received from Encycle “contained recyclable quantities of copper” and were “not particularly dangerous to human health or the environment.”)
The settlement agreement reached by Asarco and EPA did not include any provisions for testing workers, soil, air, water or community members for exposure to potential contaminants in the Department of Defense wastes. The El Paso community also was not informed about the illegal incineration of hazardous waste. It would be 8 years before the people of the El Paso border region began to discover the truth.
- EPA Response to Encycle-ASARCO Settlement Statement, 1998
- Rocky Mountain Arsenal Photographs from National Archives, Washington, D.C.
- Encycle photographs from Report Produced by the Texas Natural Resource Commission, 1997
In 1999, one year following the EPA consent decrees, ASARCO closed the El Paso plant, citing the falling price of copper as the reason for the closure. The company’s official position was that the closure was temporary, but indefinite. The announcement shocked the community. Asarco workers remember the day the closure was announced, and the bewildering rush of emotions they felt. Many went back to school to learn new skills; others sought new jobs (i).
In 1999 Asarco was purchased by its Mexican subsidiary, Grupo Mexico, making Grupo the third-largest copper producer in the world. In 2002 Grupo purchased Asarco’s lucrative Peruvian mining affiliate, Southern Peru Copper Corporation, for what the U.S. courts later determined to be a below-market price. As Asarco’s assets were transferred across the border to Grupo’s books, the Justice Department warned that Asarco might be contemplating bankruptcy. An Asarco bankruptcy would have jeopardized cleanups that had previously been negotiated at Asarco sites throughout the country. As a condition for allowing the sale of Southern Peru Copper, the DOJ required Asarco to establish a $100 million trust fund to support its clean-up activities.
In 2002 ASARCO applied to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to renew the air permit which allowed the company to operate. But by this time conditions in the community had changed. El Paso had been relatively free of sulfur dioxide emissions for three years. Former workers had begun to focus on unexplained medical problems that began while working at the smelter. Linkages were developing between the working class communities and environmental groups in El Paso, Juarez and nearby Sunland Park, New Mexico, and people had begun to educate themselves about the dangers of Asarco’s emissions. The University of Texas at El Paso was found to have significant levels of lead contamination in its soils. Sunland Park, which had received significant amounts of Asarco’s emissions because of the prevailing winds, was identified as one of the most lead-polluted communities in the nation.
Activists have also become concerned about impacts on ground water and aquifers connected to the Rio Grande River, a source of drinking water and irrigation for both El Paso and Mexico. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality documented levels of arsenic that are significantly above federal standards for drinking water. Other contaminants of concern that exceed federal standards are lead, cadmium, chromium, copper and selenium (ii).
A coalition formed, fueled by concerned residents, students, environmental activists, former Asarco employees, and public officials. Several groups joined in, including Get the Lead Out (El Paso), the Sunland Park Grassroots Environmental Group, ACORN and the Environmental Center of Juarez. Together they focused their energies on educating their communities about the dangers of Asarco’s emissions and opposing the renewal of Asarco’s air permit. At the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), students organized their own movement to oppose Asarco’s air permit, Students Against Asarco.
In 2005 Asarco entered into Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, citing its environmental liabilities as the primary cause. Operations at its Arizona mines and last functioning smelter in Hayden, Arizona continued. As part of the court process of corporate reorganization Asarco was removed from Grupo Mexico’s control and placed under the control of a board of creditors, which included the company’s main union, the United Steelworkers. During this process Asarco continued to press its case to renew its air permit in El Paso.
In October 2005 an Administrative Court issued a nonbinding ruling that Asarco had failed to prove it would change its pollution practices if granted a new air permit. The court recommended that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reject Asarco’s air permit application.
In January 2006 the Sierra Club released a study linking Asarco’s emissions to soil contamination on both sides of the U.S. Mexico border. The study, conducted by Michael Ketterer, Professor of Chemistry at Northern Arizona University, took 97 soil samples in El Paso, Anapra, New Mexico and Ciudad Juarez, and concluded that the lead in the soil had the same “fingerprint”” (lead isotope ratio) as the lead in ore received from Asarco’s Santa Eulalia mine (http://lonestar.sierraclub.org/press/newsreleases/20060131.asp) In May 2007, as the campaign to keep Asarco closed gained momentum, the El Paso City Council voted unanimously to oppose the reopening of Asarco. In June 2007 public officials from El Paso, Sunland Park and Ciudad Juarez met at Monument One, the international area next to the Rio Grande River, and signed a resolution opposing the renewal of Asarco’s air permit.
In 2006 researcher and teacher Heather McMurray obtained a copy of the EPA confidential memo about Asarco’s “sham recycling.” For the first time the community had hard evidence that Asarco had illegally incinerated hazardous waste its El Paso and East Helena, Montana smelters. In an interview Ms. McMurray explained:
We know that Asarco had a subsidiary, Encycle, in Corpus Christi. Encycle processed hazardous waste. It was a recycling center. They were supposed to pull out metals from the product or send the materials to our smelter here or in East Helena that had metals in them that could be smelted out. Instead of doing that they sent us stuff that had no metals value in it. There was no reason, it was not legal for them to send that here without permitting us as a hazardous waste incinerator. But they did it, and finally the EPA caught them. When [the EPA] caught them they kept it secret, they didn’t want to let anyone know. We don’t know why they wanted to keep it secret, but ASARCO smelted the stuff for almost a decade illegally, and then covered it up through the government for another seven-eight years.
In fall 2006 the New York Times published a story based on Heather McMurray’s findings: “A bankrupt copper giant facing billions of dollars in pollution claims…pretended for years to recycle metals while illegally burning hazardous waste in a notorious El Paso smelter” (iii). Since that time members of the border coalition have continued to uncover information relating to Encycle/El Paso’s illegal shipments of hazardous waste to smelters, and the incineration of the waste in Asarco’s stacks.
Despite 6 years of hard work by environmental activists, former Asarco employees, public officials, university students, and residents of El Paso, Juarez and Anapra, the TCEQ, at a final hearing in Austin, Texas, in February 2008, agreed to grant Asarco a renewed air permit, provided that the company could demonstrate that the shuttered plant was still operable and could meet the guidelines set for state emissions.
In April 2008 three years into Asarco’s bankruptcy process, the Arizona Republic reported, “an unprecedented rise in copper prices, bankruptcy and dedicated managers have helped transform…Asarco LLC from a financial train wreck into a solid business with $1 billion in cash, no operating debt and a promising future” (April 16, 2008).
In February 2009 the EPA told Texas officials that under federal law the smelter did not qualify for the permit renewal granted by the TCEQ.
On the same day Asarco announced it was dropping its plan to reopen the Asarco smelter. The company attributed its decision to “a dramatic downturn of the world economy” (Dallas Morning News, February 4, 2009).
- (i) El Paso Times, “Asarco to lay off 370 workers.” Dec. 1, 1998
- (ii) (http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/remediation/sites/asarco/media)
- (iii) Blumenthal, Ralph,”Copper Plant Illegally Burned Hazardous Waste,” New York Times, October 11, 2006
- “Faces Against ASARCO” photograph used by permission of Robert Ardovino
- Interview with Students Against Asarco members: Summer Luciano, Jaqueline Barragan, Analise Cordoba and Leon Kababie. El Paso, Texas, July 2006