We wrote in an earlier article (“Save the ASARCO Stacks–Create a Sustainable Future“) of the historical and economic importance of preserving the smoke stacks associated with the now closed industrial complex just off Interstate-10 near downtown El Paso, TX. We discussed possible mixed uses of the property, including academic research, a “Green Technology” research park, an international cultural heritage museum, and outdoor recreational uses of the property all centered around the cultural and historical heritage represented by the stacks. A small, non-profit organization—Save the Stacks –has led the fight to keep these iconic structures as part of our border skyline. Made up of concerned El Pasoans with no political or commercial interests in the stacks or the approximate 400 acres on which they stand, Save the Stacks has advocated using the stacks as part of a monument dedicated to all the individuals impacted by the regional industries and activities represented by them. However their backs are against the proverbial “wall” as they must convince authorities to stop current plans for the stacks imminent demolition in early April. This is the last chance to save the stacks or they will be destroyed and a bit of our border’s history lost forever!
How Did We Get Here?–Originally, Roberto Puga, the site custodial trustee had planned to demolish the stacks as early as February of last year. After discussions with the community he agreed to postpone the decision until November 2012 on the condition they could show him concrete engineering analysis that the stacks were structurally sound and safe from any potential seismic or other natural events. However, he stated that none his available funds could be used for that analysis or any other costs related to preserving the stacks which he estimated to be more than $14 million. This cost figure alone, unsubstantiated by any technical analysis, turned most El Pasoans against saving the stacks, despite an earlier poll showing more than 80% support for their preservation. Save the Stacks set out to not only prove the safety of the stacks but provide a cost estimate of preservation based on an actual technical analysis, unlike Mr. Puga’s exorbitant guesstimate.
By midsummer of 2012 this purely voluntary group was able to raise over $50,000 and identify several engineering firms with needed expertise to carry out the engineering analysis of the stacks. After getting the requisite permits and specialized training required by Mr. Puga a nationally recognized firm, Industrial Access, Ltd (IA), was able to access the stacks and physically inspect the largest, 828 foot stack from top to bottom in early October. The preliminary analysis showed the larger stack to be structurally sound and not in need of any major repairs to maintain the stack for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, in late October just as Save the Stacks was finalizing the results of their engineering study and assessment, Mr. Puga was refusing to budge on his deadline of November 2012 for any alternate plan to the proposed demolition. After intervention by the Mayor of El Paso, John Cook, Save the Stacks was able to secure a one month extension of his deadline to December the 4th but now with additional requirements. These included in addition to the engineering and structural analysis, providing detailed analysis of the costs for preservation and maintenance over several decades as well as identifying the public or private entity that would be willing and able to take on the responsibility for the stacks and related property going forward indefinitely. While a positive step the additional time was barely sufficient to complete the necessary engineering assessment and analysis, let alone obtain the additional cost estimates and more importantly, convince an appropriate public and/or private entity to take on the broader responsibility and obligations in managing these structures.
Save the Stacks met the deadline and was able to provide a cost estimate for preservation and maintenance of the larger stack at just over $3 million over 50 years. This comes to less than $60,000 per year and less than one-quarter the figure suggested by Mr. Puga. After further discussions with the Mayor and other political leaders–State Senator Jose Rodriguez, Councilwomen Susie Byrd, Emma Acosta, and Courtney Niland, Councilman Steve Ortega, among others, expressed strong support to preserve the stacks– it was agreed to put a resolution supporting preservation before El Paso’s City Council on November 28th. The resolution would among other things, allow the city to take ownership of the stacks and a small amount of the surrounding property. This would address Mr. Puga’s requirement for a public entity to take on the overall responsibility of the stacks.
Mr. Puga, during the Council’s more than three hours of deliberations continued to contest the Save the Stacks engineering analysis as well as their cost figures. He stated that the engineering study failed to take into account potential sustained winds of over 90 mph (hurricane levels not seen in El Paso) with potential for catastrophic failure. He further argued that he did not have the authority under the current trust agreement to give the city the stacks or provide any money for their preservation. With that he added he would need an additional $10 million (!) for the land as well as the $14 million he estimated to preserve and maintain the stacks over 50 years. The Council, not surprisingly, balked at the expenditure of such funds and, in a split vote, voted against the full resolution. However, they approved a motion stating the Council’s support for saving the stacks if the city had “no financial obligation”.
Where we are today–Since the Council meeting in late November, Mr. Puga has been steadfast in his position that the stacks must be destroyed, noting his December 4th deadline had passed and there was no further discussion needed. Luckily, the Save the Stacks organization has continued to gain important allies in their quest to at least hold a reasonable discussion as to the value of preserving the stacks versus simply demolishing them and burying the remains onsite. In addition to elected officials noted earlier, newly elected Congressman Beto O’Rourke, state representatives, Mary Gonzalez, Marisa Marquez, and Joe Moody as well as El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar expressed support for preserving the stacks. In a December El Paso Times editorial, the newspaper notes ” there are huge differences of opinion on cost factors involved, and who pays, we urge Asarco trustee Roberto Puga to slow down and further explore options.” They further state, ” Let’s take some time to further explore the actual price it would take to preserve the stacks. Then let’s go from there. Because, once the stacks are felled, they’ll be gone forever”.
Save the Stacks continues to press their case. Legal analysis of the trust agreement under which Mr. Puga is operating suggests that he does indeed have the authority not only to expend funds to preserve and maintain the stacks but as well to cede the stacks and related property to the City. The agreement states that he is authorized “to sell, transfer, or otherwise dispose of all or part of such properties” giving him wide latitude in his decision making. There is no obstacle to him giving the stacks, or any other historically significant structures, to the City of El Paso. This is further substantiated by Mr. Puga’s decisions to preserve other parts of the property, including plant offices and the power house for historical purposes, including providing funding to insure their structural soundness and integrity. He has even indicated in conversations that there might be funds for a “monument” for the site (but not if it included the stacks), again suggesting he has very wide latitude in his authority and requirements under the trust agreement. He even indicated recently he had over $2 million in extra funds as a “cushion.”
One can also question the wisdom of following Mr. Puga’s preferred method of environmentally remediating the stacks, which is to bury their demolished remains in a pit now being “mined” for the metals-rich slag accumulated over more than a century of operation in what had been a natural arroyo for surface and groundwater runoff. He proposes to follow similar strategies to those used in Tacoma, Washington to dispose of industrial smokestacks by burying the demolished waste in the sealed, lined arroyo. What works in Tacoma will not necessarily work in El Paso for a number of reasons. There is a major difference in the geology and geography of the two areas. Without looking at the specific details it is obvious that the soils, strata, and geological structure would be vastly different. Similar differences exist regarding subterranean and surface waters and their movements. Despite man’s hubris that they can bend the will of nature our own recent experience with local flooding with the 2006 “hundreds year” rains suggests the arroyo will likely continue to be a point for major movement of any waste products buried there with the Rio Grande river and lower valley the likely recipients of any leachants. The linings themselves, despite the reassurances to contrary, will likely not remain effective after a few decades as witnessed by similar attempts to contain toxic and nuclear wastes in Washington and elsewhere. Mr. Puga confirmed when questioned recently that no third party analysis of the proposed lining technology specific to the site had been conducted. Far better the stacks be kept intact where we can easily monitor any “toxicity” associated with them rather than bury them where they will pose much more of a danger.
Last Chance–Mr. Puga and those agencies who back the ASARCO Trust Settlement, EPA and the TCEQ, need to hear from our political leadership as well as the public as to their desires regarding the preservation our cultural heritage and the history that the stacks represent to this community. Up to now much of the community has been mislead, not only as to the true costs for such preservation and maintenance but with misinformation as to the legal authority from which the Trust Agreement will allow Mr. Puga to dispose or deed any or all of the historically significant property, including the stacks, to the city or another public entity. It is not clear why there continues to be an insistence by Mr. Puga and his overseers at EPA and TCEQ that the stacks must be destroyed, despite all of the evidence, information and arguments to the contrary. What is clear is that outsiders in Austin and Washington, DC are telling El Pasoans and other border residents what they must do rather than listening to what the community considers to be their best interests in the preservation of their history and their cultural heritage. This cannot be allowed. As noted by the El Paso Times, “once the stacks are felled, they’ll be gone forever.”–Paul Maxwell