Terminology in article: Smelter
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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.

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Joe Piñon, an El Paso pharmacist, remembers that in the 1950’s Asarco’s emissions had a serious effect on the city’s air quality. He asked the city to seek funds for testing in order to determine the types and quantities of toxics from Asarco’s emissions.

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.

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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.

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