top of page

Controversy in El Paso

Updated: Jan 13, 2020

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 to determine the types and amounts 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 people with physical problems in El Paso's neighborhoods and among ASARCO workers, and he thought their problems could be related to smelter emissions.

"In 1958 I became President of the Pharmaceutical Association. One of my pet projects was creating a Poison Control Center in El Paso. It was not only of interest because of what children might take accidentally, but because ... ASARCO had toxicants, and they were available on the ground and in the air... I sadly found out that the rest of the community was not interested in unearthing that connection between ASARCO and poisons. It was difficult to get across to the media that this situation existed." (Interview with Joe Piñon)

It was common knowledge that ASARCO’s emissions traveled across the border into Mexico and neighboring New Mexico. Asarco often waited until the winds blew south towards Mexico to heat up its furnaces and increase production. Piñon was especially concerned about the people who lived south of the Rio Grande River, in Juarez. He told us,

"I used to walk the colonias. In the beginning I would go legally; it would take a half hour. Evenings, I didn't have time. After a while there was a good Border Patrol who'd see me wade across. He'd never bother me. He'd say, "I'm not here right now, I'm leaving!

"So I'd wade across and talk to the people in Juarez. In the summer you'd see people get water from their roofs and put it in cisterns. That was the water they would use to wash their clothes. They wouldn't drink it. I remember looking into the cisterns and I would see these floating particles of metal. So of course they had this metal all over their houses."

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 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 improvements 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 …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."


Interview with Joe Piñon, El Paso, Texas, July 2006.


bottom of page