Save the Stacks–Last Chance, Part II

Asarco stacksIn previous blogs concerning the Asarco stacks slated for demolition in early April we focused on the historical and cultural issues surrounding the Asarco stacks and surrounding property.   In this article we look at serious new issues related to environmental and health concerns that arise from the Trustee’s decision to bury the contaminated stack remains onsite.  This has the potential for spreading the toxic wastes into the groundwater and Rio Grande water basin adjacent to the site.  This will have profound impacts not only for US residents downstream along the Rio Grande river but for Mexico and Mexico’s citizens who strongly rely on these waters for their uses as well.   These concerns are just now being raised as regional leaders become increasingly aware of the details surrounding environmental remediation plans to “clean up” the Asarco site and the potential for a long term environmental  and health disaster should they be carried out.

As reported in the El Paso Times, regional leaders, including Congressman Beto O’Rourke, State Senator Jose Rodriguez, State Representative Marisa Marquez, El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, among others recently sent a letter in which they posed a number of questions to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.   The questions  they asked:

  •  What contaminants are actually in the Asarco smokestacks?   Has an appropriate comprehensive analysis of the contaminants and their potential toxicity levels been conducted?  If not, why not?  It would seem only prudent that any plan for the stacks, potentially the most highly contaminated parts of the Asarco site, would include a thorough analysis of what contaminants were actually in the stacks.
  • What analysis has been conducted to consider the best means to remediate the potential contaminants in the chimneys?  Not knowing what contaminants exist in the stacks, it’s hard to  gauge what remediation means are most appropriate.  Again, it may be more prudent simply to keep the stacks intact where they can be readily monitored and more easily dealt with rather than if they are demolished and dust and other potentially hazardous materials are distributed around the property.
  • What catastrophic contingency plan exists should the proposed demolition not go as planned, i.e. , the stack falls the wrong way, the wind kicks up unexpectedly and spreads contaminated dust, or a stack is undermined and then falls before anyone is ready?  Does the plan contemplate having medical and law enforcement at the ready with appropriate training in the event of such failure(s)?  The current proposal calls for dynamiting the stacks in early April at the peak of the regions windy season where wind gusts of up to 50-80 mph have been recorded.  Dust plumes arising from the actual demolition could easily spread contaminated material for tens of miles around the proposed site, including into adjacent Mexico. It is not unthinkable that prior weakening of the stack base prior to demolition could lead to an unanticipated catastrophic failure of the stack(s), prematurely in these same high winds.
  • The Trustee proposes burial of the stack waste on site in “encapsulated” cell(s) using geomembrane liners and a monolayer overfill. These cells will be placed within the Parker Brothers Arroyo, a major ground water pathway to the Rio Grande.  This leads to additional questions:  How long will the cells remain effective in containing the contaminants?  Will they remain intact indefinitely or will they fail at some period of time ten years, twenty years or fifty years in the future? Has a third party, site specific analysis been conducted to verify the expected lifetime of the cells and their liners? If not, why not?  The Trustee is strongly relying on a cell technology to “permanently” eliminate the danger of these contaminated materials.   They plan on monitoring the waters that collect within the cells, pump it out and, thus, prevent any of the materials to leak out into the surrounding ground water.  What they don’t discuss is the actual entrainment of ground water on and about the plastic cell containing the waste.  With time, the weight of the tremendous overburden of rock and soil and underground water erosion/entrainment, the plastic lining will rupture and the waste will then enter the water table.  Studies have shown this may take as little as ten years or as long as 65 years but no doubt the cells will eventually rupture.  Then what?!
  • What are the expected costs and liabilities for additional remediation once the cells fail? Given that there will be no funding for additional remediation once the Trustee has completed his work it will be left to future generations to deal with what will no doubt be even greater costs for cleaning up an environmental disaster in the making.  How will we pay for additional millions to clean up a mess that clearly is now in the making?  Better to deal with the problem now rather than putting it on the shoulders of our children.  The Trustee will be long gone by the time any of these scenarios may develop.
  • Has anyone seriously analyzed if it would be better, environmentally, simply to keep the stacks standing and monitor any contaminants going forward indefinitely?  Who conducted it and what did that analysis show? This is particularly relevant given that the proposed burial cells will ultimately fail.  The Trustee has assiduously avoided any discussion of alternatives to dealing with the stacks other than by demolition and burial (out of sight, out of mind?), raising even more doubts as to the bias with which the Trustees and TCEQ are approaching their tasks related to the Asarco property.  It would seem that the decision to demolish the stacks was a foregone conclusion even before anyone took the time to actually consider what would be the best environmental approach to the stacks.
  • We question whether any existing permit for storage of hazardous waste on the site would have contemplated this type of event, or whether a new permit should be required in order to expand the scope of any such existing permit.  Is such a permit required?  If not, why not? The site was originally granted permits for disposal of “industrial wastes” on site that were a natural part of the original smelter operations.  However, it is clear that such permits were not intended to apply for hazardous waste disposal now contemplated as part of the Asarco cleanup and remediation.  If the stacks contain, for example, PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls), reportedly disposed of through high temperature incineration at the smelter, introduction of these highly carcinogenic, toxic materials into the region’s water supply would be horrific.  Again only an appropriate chemical analysis of the stacks themselves will answer such questions.  Legally, one can ask why the rush to dispose of these wastes and why aren’t appropriate legal procedures being followed?
  • We are also concerned with our international treaty obligations with Mexico under the La Paz Agreement on hazardous wastes should the cells fail and with that, the high likelihood that any contaminants will find their way to the Rio Grande and water systems we share with Mexico.   Have appropriate Mexican authorities been properly informed and consulted regarding the potential environmental contamination arising from the Asarco cleanup as required by our treaty obligations?  If not, why not?  The La Paz Agreement on hazardous wastes between the US and Mexico focuses on hazardous waste issues existing within one hundred kilometers of their mutual border.  Mexico in the late 1990’s successfully enjoined the US from constructing a low level, nuclear waste (hospital gowns, gloves, swipes, etc) disposal facility in Sierra Blanca, TX because of concern for potential long-term contamination of the Rio Grande ground water  some 50 miles south of the facility.  There were no ground water basins or immediate natural access points for contamination but the Mexican government (along with environmental groups in the US) was successful in preventing the opening of this facility.  Asarco and its hazardous wastes sits on the US-Mexico border, only meters from the river and the border.  The arroyo is a natural ground water access point to the Rio Grande and its river basin.  The city of Ciudad Juarez relies heavily on the water from the river for sewage and farming below the city.  Hazardous wastes in this water will impact millions of residents on both sides of the border but more directly Mexico.

It would appear the questions being raised by the regional leaders is only beginning to scratch the surface of the potential problems associated with the Asarco “clean up.”  For instance no Environmental Analysis (EA) nor an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has been performed for the Asarco chimneys or site to date.  TCEQ holds that no EA was conducted for Asarco remediation because it is not a federal action according to an opinion provided by EPA.  This is somewhat curious since the remediation is the result of a federal court order and since that order authorizes TCEQ and a federal agency, EPA, to supervise the remediation.  The rationale appears to be that a private party (the Trustee’s company, Project Navigator, Ltd) is carrying out the remediation under contract to the TCEQ.  Regardless, the upshot is that a remediation is being conducted in El Paso that (through procedural grounds) circumvents federal environmental laws created to protect the environment and the surrounding community.  As a result a number of questions and concerns the El Paso community now has regarding the cleanup would have been and should have been addressed through a proper EA and/or EIS process.  The community in Everett, Washington, also home to an Asarco plant, was more fortunate.  They cleaned up their Asarco site with an EIS and a community participation plan in place .

This is particularly disturbing because there was a known history of hazardous materials being disposed of at the Asarco facility which lead to judicial action by EPA against Asarco in the 1990’s.  In a story in the NY Times in 2006 they reported:

“The agency (EPA), in a 1998 internal memorandum, said the company, Asarco, and its Corpus Christi subsidiary, Encycle, had a permit to extract metals from hazardous waste products but used that as a cover to burn the waste until the late 1990’s, saving the high costs of proper disposal.

Among the more than 5,000 tons the company was accused of misrepresenting as containing metals for reclamation were more than 300 tons of nonmetallic residues from the former Army chemical warfare depot at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside Denver. (It is not clear what the arsenal’s material contained.)”

“This activity, plain and simple, was illegal treatment and disposal of hazardous waste,” the environmental agency said in the memorandum, long held confidential but recently obtained by two El Paso environmental groups opposed to the smelter. “Encycle’s own business records provide compelling evidence of sham recycling.”’

There is a history going back a few decades that shows environmental and hazardous waste problems on this site.  We can only question why the hurry to tear everything down and bury it, declaring “victory?”  Are we covering up more than the stacks?  Let’s take some time and do this properly.  Not only is our history and culture here at stake but the environmental health and well being of our region.–Paul Maxwell

If you want to sign a petition asking TCEQ  to stop the demolition of the stacks and reconsider burial of wastes on the site go to:


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