A VERY CLEAR “NO!” by Carlos Rodriguez

Terminology in article: Smelter
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Carlos Rodriguez, El Paso, TexasCarlos Rodriguez, El Paso, Texas

Carlos Rodriguez lives and works in El Paso, Texas. He worked for ASARCO for 28 years as an electrician. Carlos is a leader in the Ex-Asarco Employees Group which fought to prevent ASARCO from renewing its air permit in 2008. Carlos wrote this essay during the air permit struggle.

“Finding an old friend”

It was about 2003 when I went to my credit union to conduct some business.  A line had formed and I stood there waiting my turn.  I hadn’t noticed the gentleman in front of me and as he finished his business he turned and we made eye contact.  This was a co-worker of mine—Daniel Arellano—who I hadn’t seen since the layoff of 1999.  Daniel had worked for ASARCO in the Acid Plants Department; his years of service were about 25 years and his classification was Acid Plant Operator.  I was assigned to that same department as the area Maintenance Electrician; my years of service were close to 28 years.  We had become good colleagues on the job and in the community. Daniel is a master of deep frying carnitas and I was very much involved in the company softball league.  After each game the teams and their families would gather in the playground areas for refreshments and Daniel’s famous carnitas.  The softball field was on the exact same site where Old Smeltertown used to sit.  Some of the guys who had grown up in Smeltertown would joke about where home plate was, “the corner of so and so”.  ASARCO was aware then, as they are now, that the area was highly contaminated with lead, arsenic, cadmium — and who knows what else.

The first words out of Daniel’s mouth were “Hey, Charlie, I’ve been looking for you.”  I was surprised — not at the comment, but at how he said it with so much desperation.  We stepped outside the credit union and our conversation went on for a long time, an hour or so.  He was interested in how I felt about the company we both had worked for.  I told him how I had kept contact with my last boss, how he was going to re-hire me as soon as they re-opened the plant and how they were already going through the process of getting things ready to start recalling certain key individuals. My ex-boss also mentioned to me that things would be different, since the unions would not be invited back. I found this strange because I had been the Chief Steward for the IBEW Local for ten years, up to the ’99 layoffs.

I didn’t give too much attention to this offer, because, all along, I’ve felt ASARCO would never open again.  I personally witnessed and took part in a public auction ASARCO conducted.  They practically were giving things away. Example: I bought three 440-volt 3-phase welding machines, several chipping guns, about eight with bits, acetylene, gas tank dollies and the exercise double-trailer for the grand sum of $1500.  I had already been told about the permit ASARCO was pursuing and I personally thought that they only wanted the permit to delay the clean-up.

Daniel handed me some paperwork he had in his car and encouraged me to read it.  The information I digested was at first unbelievable; but with all the dealings I had with the company as a union steward, what I was reading really came as no surprise.  The materials talked about EPA, Department of Defense, OSHA and our local Congressman.  The company had been caught with the distribution and disposal of toxic hazardous materials.  Military warfare stuff!!!  Being a Vietnam veteran, I recognized the level of danger this company had created for their employees.  I told Daniel about my brother just passing away, how he’d died of cancer and how we were still grieving for him.  Daniel then started calling out names — people I knew and worked with.  How this guy had died of the same causes, how this guy was very sick, how others were developing symptoms.  I then told him how I myself had episodes with a strange and persistent rash I had developed back in ’96.

“Okay Dan,” I said, “How can I help?”  With those words, Daniel breathed a sigh of relief. He thanked me for understanding and for offering support.  And then he told me about the illness he himself was going through.  I felt so much anger and pain for all those guys at that moment that I was at a loss for words.

“Go at it”

For the last year and half, Daniel, myself, Efren Martinez, Jesus Canabá and others have been working in an effort to keep this hell-hole from opening its doors ever again.  Together we have unearthed a lot, sometimes things we already knew, but not to the extent we know now.  Some co-workers remain loyal to the company, because it gave them a good life. I tell them, “as far as being a good-paying job yes, it was, but they were not a good employer for knowingly and willfully killing us slowly, and very fast in some cases.”

ASARCO has no regard for human life and no regard for Hispanics.  The dangers we were exposed to were never fully explained.  It was the Mickey Mouse Musketeers: “Here’s your ears and here’s your hat. Here are your respirator, glasses, boots and gloves. GO AT IT.”  We were not told about the extreme hazards of lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium, antimony, sulfur and acids.  They were not interested in our safety. Everybody went around smoking, chewing gum, eating and drinking sodas near the hazards around us.  It wasn’t until the early 90’s that ASARCO started enforcing their safety program.  Up until then it was like a big picnic inside the plant.  Everyone would cook food in the area departments. You’d walk around the plant, the smell of steaks cooking everywhere.

Retirements–just ask any retiree about his pension.  An example: myself, I just put in for my retirement benefits.  No insurance and my monthly take-home is projected to be $587 after almost 28 years of service. I ask you — can a family of three live on that kind of income?  My only choice is to seek income in other places.  This company makes claims of being a good employer and neighbor.  But how have they treated their money makers – us, the employees?  How much of a good neighbor are they?

Lead is especially dangerous to young children.  This hell-hole sits pretty much in the middle of our city’s west side, with elementary and high schools in a 5-mile radius. ASARCO has paid fine after fine.  Government agencies that are supposed to police these polluters simply assess the fines, but make no efforts to correct the problems.  Big Brother is not doing its job, and ASARCO takes full advantage of the situation. This is not how good neighbors treat each other.

I have been asked if I would have worked for Asarco if I knew then what I know now.  My answer is a very clear NO.  I would not be able to live with myself, knowing that my work, our production, would be hurting people, especially young ones.

Daniel, Efren, Jesus and I joined ACORN, A Community Organization for Reform Now.  It’s given us an avenue for fighting this monster.  Going up against a big corporation is very costly and only rarely does a small guy slay a giant.  A corporation like Asarco will go to any means to obtain its goals.  The resources needed to stop a giant like this are really hard to find.  ACORN has been a very big help.  We have been able to reach as far as the nation’s capitol.  In Washington DC we talked with Congressman Sylvestre Reyes to solicit for his help in the investigation of the hazardous materials incinerated at ASARCO. In Austin, we’ve petitioned the TCEQ (Texas Commission of Environmental Quality) to deny ASARCO’s petition to renew its air permit. We’ve talked with our local elected officials to get their support. Being away from our families to fight this company is tough for us, but it is even more difficult for our wives and kids.  But they are in this battle too, and our love for each other grows stronger.  Together we can and we will be the victors.

“Should not have happened in the first place”

Let me first tell you about the safety and health program we had at ASARCO.  I was the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) Chief Shop Steward.  It was my duty to make sure the contract was followed.  This position gave me some leeway to keep the company in check.  It was my belief that ASARCO was a company to never ever go the extra step for its employees, those of us in IBEW and in the Steelworkers.  I maintained a good relationship with the Steelworkers’ elected officials at the local level, the mesa electiva, including the Vice-President, Chief Steward, Secretary, Treasurer, Sergeant at Arms, and stewards.  The stewards were elected from area departments, according to the shifts they worked in, so employees would always have easy access to them.

In the Steelworkers’ case this was a necessity.  If I remember correctly, they had in the neighborhood of 500 or so grievances per year.  Having so many grievances would be a big RED FLAG.  When I took office, our grievances were as many as 100 per year.  During my first year as Chief Steward, I brought this down to 5.  Why? Because I weeded out the ones that had nothing to do with the contract.  We had many supervisors with the “do as I say” mentality.  This most definitely was not in our contract. We had the upper hand against most of the company honchos because very few of them understood electricity.  Their only recourse was to become close to our guys and try to understand what was going on with their systems: motors, starters, transformers, underground lines, overhead lines, equipment.  They caught on that it would be better to work with us than against us.  To this day I do not understand why I got labeled a troublemaker instead of the person that made things right between the parties. In a grievance procedure, the first step was between the worker and the area supervisor, in a meeting to discuss the problem that would take about an hour.  The second step, if either party was not satisfied with the first-step decision, would be to go to the department head.

This is where it got interesting, because by this time I was totally on our member’s side and the department head would be looking out for his supervisor’s interest.  Here is where the actual contract language would be applied; there had to be a direct violation of the contract for me to decide to pursue a grievance.  At this step we are looking at the supervisor, the griever, an assistant shop steward, myself, and the department head.  If the department head’s answer was not favorable, we’d go to the third step level, which was the plant manager.  So we’d have the plant manager, the supervisor, department head, and our bunch, plus a third assistant shop steward because the numbers had to balance out on both sides of the table.

Look at what the company was paying out – just to have all these individuals sitting there discussing a situation that should not have happened in the first place! Talk about poor management!  Many of our grievances produced results – it became mandatory for many of the hardcore supervisors to go to anger management classes.  Some guys actually became good supervisors; at least a couple of them thanked me.

If a fourth step was needed, the grievance would go to an arbitration judge.  This hearing would be away from the plant, maybe at a hotel where the company and unions shared the expense.  Many times the company would try and force the unions to go to arbitration, hurting them in the pocketbook. This process was not cheap and the unions, at least our union, would feel the pinch.  And so, we’d make every effort to settle at the third step.  There had to be a really big contract violation to go beyond that.  Asarco’s strategy works the same way on the outside; they try to buy their way — just as with the air permit battle we’re in right now.

I was also the IBEW representative on the Safety and Health committee, consisting of two Steelworkers, one IBEW rep, the Plant Safety Engineer, and a representative from each department being inspected: one from production, one from maintenance, and the area electrician.  This idea came from the unions.  We concluded that the area employees were the most affected parties: one, because the area production employees were most familiar with the area and they would be the ones operating and working with the equipment; two, the area maintenance employees and electrician would be the ones doing the adjustments, fixtures, and/or additions to make the area safer.

We actually got to the point where our accidents rates were improving!  Here again, many supervisors felt they were losing control and many times the company would side with them.  They would look at cost and not the whole picture of safety.  I’ll give an example of how Asarco would look the other way when it came to losing control of their area and – I guess – feeling threatened.  We had a safety tour in the Cottrell area (i).  There were several screw conveyors about 10 feet high.  The employees would utilize ladders to access the screw conveyors for maintenance.  We saw a ladder that had been burnt at one end, so we red-tagged it, which meant, “to remove from the area and trash.”  The tours in each area would happen about every three months.  So we came back three months later and the ladder had been put back into service.  The safety engineer talked to the supervisor and another red tag was placed on the ladder.  The supervisor totally ignored the order and Murphy’s Law went into effect. Soon after, an employee was working on this ladder; it gave way and he broke his arm. The company was going to give this employee a warning, with time off without pay.  The unions were made aware of the company’s decision and a grievance was submitted.  Because the Safety and Health committee kept a record of the incident with the area supervisor, the employee had his disciplinary action removed and the supervisor was reprimanded by the company, but only with a wrist-slap. This was a very insulting punishment to the unions and the Safety and Health committee.  This type of corrective action was not rare, and so we had ongoing struggles with the company.

Everything that the unions had in the agreement/contracts with the company was obtained through some type of negotiation.  ASARCO made few efforts to make things right for the workers. It is beyond me why a company that is so big, with so much money, would sacrifice its most valuable assets.  The experience the men accumulated through the years was very important.  We developed the buddy system to insure our safety.  The Steelworkers had the benefit of having the larger membership, with more people to look after each other, but the IBEW did not have that.  Just one man per area/department and many times, our members were forced to work alone around high voltages and in secluded areas.  We had many discussions with the company about this unsafe practice, but our concerns fell on deaf ears.  We made do with what we had, while maintaining a safe record and winning many group awards.  The safety programs had to be enforced – more on the company than on the employees.

“Run basically with patches”

In 1990 we were conducting business as usual. We were trying to avoid the on-going fugitive emissions that were so rampant inside the plant, the constant odor of sulfur and lead in the air.  I remember one particular fan that was installed.  This fan (a 1000-horsepower motor) was labeled the intermediate fan because the plan was to install it between the converter building and the Cottrell baghouse and on to the acid plants (ii, iii, iv). This fan was supposed to pull out all the fugitive emissions inside the converter building and push them to the Cottrell baghouse where the dust could be collected and recycled. It would work basically like an exhaust fan in your restroom.

The day the installation was complete and ready for testing, all the top brass, maintenance, and we electricians were observing firsthand the effectiveness of this fan.  The test consisted of placing a birds’ feather at the mouth of the flue going inside the converter building.  The huge pipes (about 12’ in diameter) were attached in a sequence that would eventually go to the baghouses.  When the fan was turned on and at full speed, the feather was released. The idea was for this feather to travel the distance of the flue and into the bughouse.  The top brass were so disappointed at the results. You see the feather simply floated away and was never sucked into the flue.  The idea was good. But the converter building was wide open —  therefore, suction was never accomplished; therefore, the fugitive emissions continued.  The overhead crane operators, maintenance, and electrical personnel assigned to the area were the ones inhaling all of this.

One would think that something would be done to correct this engineering failure. But, no, they just threw their hands in the air and ran the fan.  I believe this fan was part of the agreement with the permit renewal, so they just ran the fan and reported it as complete.

Wearing a respirator was always a must in my book.  ASARCO was more interested in the money part of the business, and never went the extra step to prevent their own machinery from breaking down, (there were many breakdowns), or to prevent damage to us, their most valued asset, their employees.  They would instruct us to make the plant run and make it run we did.  This facility was run basically with patches, so many patches that sometimes trouble-shooting a problem was the problem. After so many years of patchwork the crew actually got pretty good at identifying problem areas, and always carried plenty of electrical tape to replace what we knew would be a joint that needed re-taping.   Maintenance was a word they used to mean “patch it up and let’s go”.  I can see now the importance of production being the number-one concern.  Production is what kept this company in the black, although they always said they were in the red.

“Out-performing the supervision”

Around 1992 when the Contop furnace came to ASARCO, the company implemented what was called the Quality Process or CQI: Continuous Quality Improvements (v).  In this process, there was a steering committee, consisting of equal numbers of people from the company and the unions. I was part of the committee, representing the IBEW.  We were to select three individuals with certain qualities to become facilitators of the quality process.  This would mean sending them to school to learn how to basically get employees to buy into this process and participate in the decision-making. The company entered into the quality process because they had to have one in place to conduct their copper business; this was a trend in the United States.  I was selected to go to the school for facilitators, and I saw it as an opportunity to improve myself and improve how things ran in the plant.  The drawback was that there were incentives for the employees to give their ideas for improvements and there were also rewards for reducing employee accidents. What happened was that folks started getting on each other if someone got into an accident–accidents were not being reported.

To my surprise the employees bought into this program really well, but again, the almighty supervisors saw it as losing control in their areas.  You see, the supervisor had to be a team member for his area with one-man, one-vote.  Many employees saw this as a way to get back at their supervisors by constantly out-voting them.  The process was a good one, though, because in the end things did get done.  Soon there were so many safety improvements that the company started feeling the pinch in the old pocketbook.  The pitch I would teach was that for every accident prevented the company would save so much money, and so they should implement the employees’ ideas.  Somehow, the company had a hard time understanding this and before long the program simply fizzled out.  This only made matters worse in the employees’ eyes. It was another program the company did not stick to, because the employees really out-performed the supervision.  The dangers were all around us.  We had to really be careful and look out for each other.

Another example of how this company disrespected the employees.  They had what they called “first responders.”  The unions were not happy with this format because the first responders were the supervisors.  We explained that the supervisors were not around all the time; therefore, first responders would also have to be hourly employees.  Murphy’s Law again.  Outside a lunchroom a worker collapsed having a heart attack.  The co-worker walking out with him immediately started CPR, saving the man’s life.  The company turned around and wanted to discipline the employee who administered the CPR because he was not a first responder.  The unions fought the company, won their case and convinced the company that if this employee hadn’t been around to start CPR, there would have been a fatality.

One more example: in the machine shop, a boilermaker was cutting some plates with shears, a piece of equipment that can slice a one-inch plate like butter.  After he cut the pieces he needed, he proceeded to go around the machine to pick up his sheared pieces.  In doing so, as he bent over, he braced himself with one hand on the platform of the shears. Murphy’s Law again: somehow, the shears activated. As the blade came down it caught four of his right-hand fingers, shearing three off, and leaving the fourth dangling. While the man was screaming for help, no one knew how to release the pressure from this machine. The first responder was no place to be found. It took several unnecessary minutes before this man could be set free.  Here too, the company wanted to give this man a disciplinary action.  I will mention that he won a huge lawsuit against the company.  Bad management, large consequences.

They would say, “don’t check in your brains at the gate, bring them with you.  We want you to be part of this process for quality improvement.”  What they were really saying was “Don’t report any accidents, ‘cause you might not get that safety reward.”  The smoke was so thick, we couldn’t see what they were up to. The fact is, they were very fortunate to have this very loyal workforce.  They truly had the option to pick and choose: who, what, and when.

“The direction the wind was blowing”

ASARCO approached the union president from the Steelworkers local and me from my union.   They wanted us to travel with them to Austin to help them on their request for the air permit they needed to continue operating.  There was new technology coming and the company was already in hot water with the city for their excessive lead, arsenic, cadmium, and sulfur dioxide emissions. It is my experience that ASARCO was averaging one emissions violation per week, but since the business they were in was metals production, and metals brought in tons of money, the violations would simply be paid and business would go on as usual. I got to go to our refinery in Amarillo to observe their quality process – how it was working, and how the employees were dealing with the employee involvement process.  While there, a tour of the plant was conducted and what I saw was amazing.  Silver pouring at a constant flow, fully refined, 24/7.  The ingots had seals with the company name and “.999 pure silver” stamped on them.  We were told the gold area was too restricted to tour, but that one train load per month was the norm for shipment, while the silver bars were one train load per week. I thought at the time, copper is definitely secondary.

This new technology ASARCO was bringing in was a German-designed system that was going to reduce emissions by a huge margin, and at the same time, increase production.  We went in support of the company and testified in front of the commission, giving our endorsement for the air permit.  The new technology was supposed to eliminate most of the pollutants from the air.  We were going to run much cleaner and production was going to increase substantially.

One can only imagine how dirty our air was here in El Paso. The company followed a clear procedure in operating production.  It all depended on the direction the wind was blowing.  If it was coming from the west a second furnace would be put on line. The westerly wind would blow towards Juarez, Mexico, south El Paso and down the lower valley.  You guessed it, toward the poorer sections.  If the winds turned to the west side of the city, the more influential part of the city, never would they run more than one furnace, and sometimes they would curtail completely.

ASARCO is so backwards. After our support in obtaining the air permit, they claimed our current workforce did not have the capacity to operate this out-of-this world technology.  Our unions managed to work together in opposing the company and challenging them on this issue.  We demanded that they allow our employees the opportunity to attempt this so-called super-technology.  The contract gave us all the power for this request and I am glad to say, my persistence prevailed. What came out of this struggle was a smarter workforce with happier employees who held our heads high for our accomplishments. In production, some of the guys had never attempted to touch a computer and I give them all the credit in the world for mastering the new system.  What was arranged was to bring instructors to the plant and classes were conducted in the plant for those employees that qualified – by seniority and willingness to participate. The training went on even as the company was still in full production and the new additions to the plant were being completed. Some of older parts of the plant, some as old as 100 years, were eventually demolished and the new era began. The process was slow at first, but once the employees got familiar with the computer screens, they got to be quite the operators.  Our guys got so efficient with the electrical part of the new areas of the plant that it was a breeze solving any developing problems.

By this time – around 1993 — the new technology was operating smoothly; the company was making money; and we had just signed a new contract. Suddenly, things took a huge turn. Going into the mid 90’s, guys were going to the clinic more often. Our chief electrician started getting sick.  From one week to the next, we were asking about his health. What was wrong with him? The company would only say he had contracted leukemia.  All of us simply said, “Poor guy, we hope it isn’t serious.”  Just like that, he was gone.

People were complaining of rashes, headaches, tiredness, and getting sick. I went to the clinic asking for an ointment for a rash and for a diagnosis, and the company nurse advised me to go see a doctor.  I went through some surgery, got well and went back to work. My brother asked me how it had gone for me – he was also going through some serious health problems. Many co-workers started complaining about one thing and the other. A union brother started hallucinating; he saw co-workers at his house trying to hurt him and accused people of doing him wrong.  He had low blood counts; his brain was not getting enough oxygen; and soon, he too passed.  We all thought, “Poor guys, what must they be going thru?”

Things were changing; the materials we were working with now were different from the days of old.  They were more refined, with smaller airborne particles getting into our system much easier. Yearly physicals were provided, with chest x-rays, hearing tests, prostate checks, and blood work.  I would always complain to the company nurse, asking the company to provide notices to employees of the next blood work to be scheduled.  Since our layoff I’ve asked for my medical and exposure records. It’s been a struggle to finally get a hold of them, and to get a clear picture of what’s been going on.

In 1999, the copper industry took a big hit, with the price of copper plummeting.  It got to be as low as 68 cents per pound, and the company said it was costing them more than that to produce a pound of copper. The money just wasn’t there.  ASARCO made a decision about which plant to shut down — El Paso. It has always been my belief the El Paso location was chosen because the plant sits in middle of a city.  It was the only smart decision this company made in my 28 years of service.

I found myself out of a job.  We were put under the NAFTA program and were given unemployment benefits. Some of us went to trade schools while others went on to college.  I decided to give college a try and wound up at our local community college, struggling in class, trying to remember what I had learned 40 years ago.  Try I did and I actually made the Dean’s list!  In one year receiving assistance we were supposed to work ourselves into a new field; teaching was the field I had opted for.  But the NAFTA program only gave us that one year for school. As we all know, the bill collectors will not wait, so I had to seek employment.  I was glad I had the previous training in electricity, and I was able to find work pretty quickly.

“Soon they will realize”

Slowly, we are convincing our former co-workers about the hurt the company put on us. Now there are several former employees who might be showing their faces.  But right now, we are keeping them out of view – partly because they are afraid of retaliation, and partly because most of these co-workers don’t have experience in these matters and shy away from confrontation.  In time, more of the former ASARCO employees who are in this venture will join us publicly.

When I first talked to Danny Arellano about ASARCO’s wrongdoings he asked me if I would go with him to a meeting of retired employees to solicit their support.  I did go with him and I was very surprised at what I heard.  They flat-out denied him any support, claiming ASARCO had given them a good life and helped send their kids to college.  I gave them a good piece of my mind, telling them that even if the company did give us a good life, that did not excuse it from exposing us all to the hazardous materials that passed through our worksite, without any permits or any notice to the employees or the unions. Some of the ex-employees still are in denial.

I feel very strongly that soon they will realize the danger we were in.  Asarco is now running commercials with ex-employees and their families, saying, “My dad was able to put me through school because he worked at Asarco.” Makes me sick to think how some people can simply look the other way because nothing happened to them or a loved one.  My brother was one of those that did not make it.  He died of colon cancer about two years ago.  Longevity runs in my family and no family member has died of cancer — until my brother. We now have some twenty individuals who are dying of some form of cancer.  And yet, some families are coming out on ASARCO commercials praising the company for its good deeds.

In fact, many of my former co-workers started passing away in the mid 90’s, when none of us were aware that Asarco was processing illegal toxic materials through the El Paso plant. This is a known fact, stated by our Congressman, Sylvestre Reyes, our State Senator, Eliot Shapleigh, local leaders, our Mexican neighbors to the South, and our New Mexico neighbors. About 90% of our citizens do not want ASARCO back.  Even New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has requested that the air permit be denied.

The support for our cause is very strong and widespread.  Those individuals supporting Asarco are hanging onto the company’s back pocket.  Asarco is a very rich company with deep pockets and it has a history of using those pockets to obtain what it wants.  History shows that ASARCO’s tactics are ones to be very careful with. The company will go to any length to get that permit.  The permit will buy them time before they must dismantle the plant.  Being in bankruptcy court also allows ASARCO to buy time, spend more money on commercials and get into many pockets to insure a victory.

We must continue to fight this Goliath.  ASARCO has a history of breaking the rules, leaving whole communities in shambles, with children sick and employees dying. ASARCO has been in existence since the late 1800’s and it continues to get away from its responsibilities, leaving taxpayers with the burden of cleaning up after it. Recently, CNN did a report on Asarco   called “Broken Government – Scorched Earth.” There is no title more descriptive of a company that has done so much wrong.

  • (i)           Cottrell: a filter system that uses electrical precipitators (EPs) to clean particulate matter from smelting emissions.
  • (ii)          Converter: a process that further purifies copper by eliminating the remaining iron and sulfur present in the molten metal.
  • (iii)         Baghouses: filter systems to reduce particulate emissions
  • (iv)         Acid Plant: a plant for converting sulfur dioxide, a by-product of smelting, to sulfuric acid which can be sold commercially
  • (v)          Contop: a water-cooled, high-intensity smelting furnace