A VERY CLEAR “NO!” by Carlos Rodriguez
Carlos Rodriguez lives and works in El Paso, Texas. He worked for ASARCO for 30 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 but 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 (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) for 10 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 the 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 D.C. we talked with Congressman Sylvestre Reyes to solicit 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 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 first-hand the effectiveness of this fan. The test consisted of placing a bird's 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 baghouse.
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 nowhere 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 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 through?”
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 the 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 of 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
Update -- 2016: Several years have passed since Carlos prepared the statement above, dealing with working conditions, relations with management and workers’ experiences and concerns. Here, 6 years later, Carlos offers his thoughts about what he and other former Asarco workers have been going through and what still needs to be done.
“My co-workers and I have lost all quality of life”
For a long time now I am the only one from the ex-ASARCO workers working on this issue. The injustice efforts are dying out. Looking back since the smelter closed, there have been a few things that are positive.
One — the smelter was permanently shut down, which has made the region a 1000 times cleaner. The city and organizations working to shut the smelter depended a lot on the ex-workers; they used our illnesses as guiding points to convince communities and agencies to finally shut the smelter. But ASARCO really never intended to reopen the smelter. It was just a ploy to kill time. For what reason I don’t know — because they put out a lot of effort and money to fight the fight.
The groups that were in the fight with us have since dispersed. You see, their interest was merely to finally close the smelter; they were less concerned with the ex-workers’ health. Yes, they felt sorrow for us not getting our medical issues addressed. That was our concern. We kind of held onto their coattails to try and make progress on our issue. We wanted local, state and federal governments to help us reach that goal. Medical evaluations were my priority. I was mainly interested in getting the ex-workers their due process, and to include the spouses and, in some cases, the children. This remains my goal. Financial gain has never been a priority. I want to know why my brother passed away and why I have all these illnesses. My co-workers and I have lost all quality of life. We continue to get sick – and the younger generation who worked with us are now coming up with rashes and are concerned. Now, the older workforce continues to get worse medically and financially; costs on medications are out the roof. Now they can say we are older, but most of us began dealing with health issues in the early to mid- 90’s. A lot of workers began to get sick and many were dying at the time, mostly of cancers.
I remember one meeting we had with our mayor. We sat in his office around this huge table. We expressed our concern and he seemed to be ignoring us. He sat there looking out the window, not really listening. As we walked out the door he mentioned to me that this meeting and issue could be credited to one particular council woman. I told him, “I did not know this was political."
I’ve tried to rally the troops, but people are too busy, sick, or have little support from their spouses. Now that I’m out of retirement, my time is also limited. I’ve had to go back to work. But if we can continue, this issue – the illnesses facing the ex-workers – will be my main concern.
“Ask questions, stay alert, get informed”
I’ve learned that corporations cannot be trusted. Their main concern is the bottom line. Safety does not come first. They want to keep their employees, but when it comes to investing in employees, company investments come first.
In our case: the government (EPA) found ASARCO to be practicing a clear-cut SHAM. The fine was $5.5 million and the EPA’s own words were clear and simple — the material being incinerated contained very little or no copper. ASARCO in El Paso was a copper smelter, but what they were bringing into the plant and exposing the employees to were toxic chemical agents from our own GOVERNMENT. We had no safety training on handling this toxic material and/or safety gear to work with these toxic materials. As a result, the workforce began getting sick in the early and mid-90’s when we were young. I was 49 at the time of layoff, in 1999. Many of my co-workers passed in the ‘90s and many continued to pass through 2016. Many are still dying of cancer, while others just get worse and live with the toxins inside of them. Our days are numbered; this will end our lives sooner than we would like. The evidence of our guys dropping like flies is very apparent. Our numbers, as of 2016, are 91 deceased out of 350 hourly employees who were still at the plant at the time of the layoffs. I’m sure we have more ex workers who have passed; we just don’t know about them yet.
Myself — I feel sick every day but continue to try and have somewhat of a life. Many of my co-workers were nay-sayers, saying we were crazy, that ASARCO did not poison us. Their loyalty was strong. Some of our comrades still can’t believe what ASARCO did to us. We all thought the worker/company relationships were good. We had a good life until the skeletons were brought in.
I have no respect for a company that does not value a workforce. As a union leader with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union, it was always my job to watch for these dirty dealings. They were swift to incinerate those toxins. It was fast and smooth. Before we knew it, people were dropping like flies. We would take up collections for those passing and give the money to the widows and continue on our jobs, never realizing what was going on. Corporations stand apart. The workforce supports the corporation for the good jobs, and the community supports the corporation because the corporation is the money machine. This corporation spent millions, and not only on the workforce and benefits; it was the economic driver in the community. ASARCO supported many jobs in deliveries, materials, and merchandise; it created jobs, taxes, and utilities. It was indeed an economic driver. That’s why many in the city and lots of citizens refuse to believe this occurred.
When I think about other communities facing industrial hazards, I would say to them, "Stay involved, maybe through union representation. Contact local agencies to come check the sites. If you have a union, get involved, ask questions about possible hazards in the area. ASARCO pushed the toxins without knowledge onto the workforce; even their own front line supervisors were in the dark. It’s very difficult to monitor such activities but ask, ask, ask questions from those at the labor force level, stay alert, get informed."
“We will not abandon our efforts”
Our local Texas Legal Aid was a big supporter in our fight against ASARCO and the government. They went as far as arranging hearings in Austin. ACORN financed our trips to Austin, renting buses for some 250 people from El Paso, Sunland Park, New Mexico, and Juarez, Mexico; they also helped us sharpen our communication skills. Sierra Club was another supporter with financial aid, their important contacts both locally and nationally, and their own research. We had all our cards in place with very good connections throughout. It is hard to fight City Hall, as the saying goes, but we were going after the Federal Government. After all, these agents (the chemicals in the “sham recycling”) that were being incinerated belonged to the government.
We addressed many local organizations on our issue. Most of El Paso was in total darkness on what actually went on inside the copper plant. But the 1999 EPA report incriminated ASARCO; they found ASARCO guilty of sham recycling. Our Congressman also reported his concern. Unfortunately, that is as far as he went; he really stopped short of giving his complete support. We were very dissatisfied with his efforts. Not only did the ex-workforce suffer from the toxic incineration but the communities as well. The supposed clean-up is not a clean-up at all; it’s simply a containment. This, to me, means all the toxins remain, buried right on the site. This also means that, with time, the contaminants might seep into the ground, getting closer to our water source.
We have had much of the needed support for this battle, but there are governments that have put a strain on our efforts. The Federal Government has hindered our battle. We have requested the chance to testify in front of Congress. We are told that in D.C. when an issue is brought up, both parties must agree to hear it; so the Republicans and Democrats must agree to have the hearing, chaired by both parties. If there is no agreement to hear the issue because the parties cannot agree, then the issue is not heard. It has always been my contention that all locations — Corpus Cristi, El Paso, Hayden and now Northport — unite as one and approach the government. The old “divide and conquer” is the strategy being used here. The Federal Government is keeping us apart. Another problem is finances. At this level, we don’t have the money to keep fighting this battle. How many times can we run into a dead end without getting disappointed and giving up? But some of us are trying to keep the faith and continue to find solutions to move forward. We will not abandon our efforts – we continue to fight the fight.
“Many people, many communities”
Think about what occurred in Corpus Cristi, Texas, El Paso, Texas, Hayden, Arizona and Northport, WA., where there’s a smelter issue right on the border with Canada. I’m sure other communities have experienced the same treatment, from other corporations than ASARCO, but for sure from the same government. I’ve talked to folks in Northport. When I mentioned the idea of joining forces they were in total agreement. I strongly believe this is the only way we can get our voice in Congress. This thing about Republicans not supporting Democrats is unbelievable to me. This is not a political issue; this is a human issue where real people are dying and feeling the effects of pollution, the exposure of whole communities. The exposures in Corpus Christi, Hayden Arizona and El Paso were dead center in the middle of our everyday lives; but it’s sometimes hard to see. The biggest surprise is not getting answers from our government. Children are being affected, communities continue to feel the junk left behind. And I’m sure I’m not the only veteran in these groups; we must get our due process.
The encouragement I get? Well, it’s from not getting the answers — this is what drives me. Many people, many communities are being affected in very bad ways; they are being wronged. Here in El Paso, the University Board of Regents wants to buy the ASARCO property to expand the university, after they said there is no good human use for the property. Like I said, the clean-up is not a clean-up but a containment. This is what our governments are ignoring — first the safety of the workers, and now whole communities.
“We need to make this right”
I have suggested we team together with folks from with Corpus Christi Texas, Hayden, Arizona and Northport Washington. Maybe we can convince representatives from each area to approach Congress to arrange a hearing. Together we can fight these dirty companies as one group. I believe this cannot be done as individuals, apart from others facing these kind of impacts. We’ve tried with our last two Congressman, getting the same answer from both. The Republicans and Democrats can’t agree to move forward on this. Without the two coming together we will never get this hearing; but maybe with all of us making waves, it just might work.
My main concern has always been to get the necessary tests and treatments to find out what is exactly in our systems. We know we’re sick, we know toxic chemicals were introduced into our systems. We know our guys continue to die, but we haven’t found the good treatments for us. Parkinson’s, Hodgkins, bad rashes, diabetes, thyroid problems, the cancers. These are symptoms our Vietnam Vets are experiencing. The agents that were introduced to us are the same ones our Vets are suffering from because of their exposures in ‘Nam. The government has a huge problem with them and is trying to get rid of them. In our case, they used ASARCO. ASARCO profited from the incineration, the government got rid of some of their toxins and we, the workforce, are the ones holding the bag and suffering — with no training, no knowledge of what was occurring, and no protective gear. It is my opinion that this practice continues. NOBODY KNEW!!!
We need to make this right for the workers and widows and spouses. Many of the guys are unable to work to provide for their families. Our medical bills only pile up. Our guys are dying before the age of 60. Yes, we are older but still in our early 60’s. Those against us will say it is because we are old. Not true.
The community, for the most part has forgotten what went on at the site. Human nature has a tendency to forget. The site looks clean. We Americans have the knack to forgive and forget. We’re trying to keep memory alive.
The 2013 implosion of the stacks didn’t go very well. When the stacks came down they released a huge plume of dust right into our downtown area, and into Juarez, Mexico. Since the stacks were brought down, the area looks much cleaner. There are mountains surrounding the smelter. I recall back in the day when the plant was in full operation — those mountains were black from pollution. Now they are getting their color back; they’re still dark but the blackness is fading. So the area looks much cleaner, and we don’t have the smell in the air, which was affecting not only the workers but the surrounding communities and the students at the University. Those students have no idea what went on at the smelter. If their parents are forgetting, surely the students are totally in the dark. All they know is that the University is now wanting to buy the property. Bad idea! Recently, they found arsenic in the water in a nearby community, Sunland Park, New Mexico (follow this link to see the short film about Anapra, New Mexico, a section of Sunland Park).
The difference between now and then is the area is cleaner, looks cleaner. It used to be that at night when the plant was in operation a fine mist of dust was always present. Now we don’t see that.
Just this week I was at a community meeting hosted by the Trustee (the Trustee administers the cleanup of the former smelter site). Those in attendance were mostly agency employees from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and EPA. The idea was to inform people where they were on remediation — what is next, who intends to purchase the land, what will be built on this property. (There are still yards being monitored but only on the well-to-do side of town.) Many of the media were young reporters and knew nothing of what went on this location. Many El Pasoans simply forget. The stacks were a reminder; but since they no longer exist, people just forget. The history is dying out. How sad.
I wish the people of El Paso would take more interest in what went on at this location — the toxic chemicals that were incinerated, the chemicals still out there. The Trustee explained how they were going to contain the hazards. Basically what they will be doing is encapsulating the area: they dig so many feet down and then put layers and layers of materials to contain the chemicals. Here’s the question I put to the engineer at the meeting: What happens to the ground underneath? I explained that the University monitors earth movements and the ground at the University moves daily. The University is located just across the freeway from the ASARCO site — they’re about 1000 meters apart. In my opinion this ground movement will cause the chemicals to move daily, like a shifting floor. Eventually these toxic chemicals will reach our ground water, located not more than 40 yards from the plant location. We already have had arsenic in the Sunland Park community, and that’s a good 4 – 5 miles away. In fact, the EPA came back not more than a week later after the arsenic was reported and said there was no more arsenic. Who is EPA protecting: the environment? tThe communities? Or the Trust/ASARCO/GOVERNMENT? I know it is not the communities that are being protected.
People will remember us, the ex-workers, as people who want to get financial gain. They say we chose to work there, that our wages were good, along with our benefits. They refuse to look at the facts.