Gone With The Wind–The Asarco Stacks Are No More

A belching giant among pigmy water cannons

A belching giant among pigmy water cannons

On April 13th, early in the morning, a major portion of El Paso’s skyline for almost fifty years, the Asarco stacks,  disappeared and,  literally, were “gone with the wind.”  First the 620 ft. smaller stack and then the larger 828 ft. iconic stack were felled within seconds of the detonation of hundreds of pounds of dynamite placed in both of them.  Hundreds (if not thousands) of witnesses got up early for the pre-dawn event, occupying key points around the Asarco plant to watch the historic demolition of these majestic stacks.  For some it was a moment of joy, a closing of an era with bad memories of pollution, bad smells and an old, dirty industry.  For many of us though it was a sad occasion, signaling an end to an era rich in history, good and bad, but also removing from our landscape a major symbol of that history and the cultural heritage it represented.   For those of us who wished to preserve the stacks it took away an opportunity to not only celebrate our past but to use the stacks as a lodestone to point our way forward into a new, vibrant future.  Unfortunately, it also continued a legacy by many associated with Asarco, including some of our local officials, as well as state and federal agencies to misrepresent, to obfuscate and to outright withhold facts and information from the public critical to their well-being, health and long-term safety. 

Despite pronouncements to the contrary, the felling of the stacks did not go well.  It was not a “clean drop” as predicted.  As shown by the many photos and video (4-14-2013 12-00-17 AM) taken of the event the larger, 828 ft.  stack emitted a huge plume of black, brown, reddish smoke almost like a giant dragon disgorging whatever noxious materials it had within as part of its death throes.  What was contained in the tons of materials spewed into our atmosphere?  NO ONE KNOWS.  No one really knows, because no comprehensive analysis of the stacks interior was conducted.   In the weeks prior to the demolition, organizations like Save the Stacks and El Paso A.W.A.R.E. (Answers Wanted on Asarco Remediation and Environmental Health) tried to get a comprehensive analysis completed of the stacks.  The Asarco Trustee,
Roberto Puga, begrudgingly carried out a perfunctory  analysis, using three core samples taken in the first hundred feet of each stack which included more than 98% pure concrete and not surprisingly found no “contaminant concentration levels” posing hazardous waste concern.  No analysis was conducted nor attempted to be conducted of the material coating the inside of the stacks, even at the lower levels within easy reach of the workers.  When asked after the demolition of the stacks what was in the noxious smoke vomited by the stack, TCEQ stated it was created by the dynamite gases mixed with cement.  What wasn’t explained was why a similar cloud didn’t come from the smaller stack if indeed it was simply a result of the dynamite?  More to the point dynamite (as well as gun powder) emits a white/ bluish-white gas when detonated.  More likely it was the pressure wave created by the dynamite that pushed whatever hazardous waste product adhering to the inside of the stacks out into our atmosphere.

The one million dollaStack protectionr water cannons placed in the “drop zone” did little or nothing to minimize or prevent dispersion of the massive “dust” cloud created with the demolition.  We might as well have been using water pistols (and saved the million dollars spent) for all the good these water cannons did.  Video and photos taken just after the demolition event show the contaminated cloud spreading throughout the valley between the Franklin Mountains to the North and Northeast and the Juarez mountains and foothills to the South and Southwest.  A southeast wind carried much of the heavier blast materials over Central El Paso, Central Juarez and the nearby barrios.  The published demolition plan estimated any resultant emission from the blast would be “dissipated in no more than an hour.”  In response to an inquiry by State Senator Jose Rodriguez, TCEQ claimed that “visual observations post-demolition confirmed dissipation was less than that over the former ASARCO property.”  Interestingly, that did not conform to what was seen and reported by hundreds of observers and in videos and photos taken hours later (see the slide show- 20130422Asarco Slideshow – Final –showing the timeline as the noxious cloud spread throughout the valley and beyond).  In actual fact there was an inversion layer over the region that day and the polluted cloud could easily be seen well into the afternoon.

An hour after the demolition the valley was covered

An hour after the demolition the valley was covered

Air monitors exist both on the US as well as on the Mexican side of the border in this region.  These monitors were designed to measure certain elements (CO2, CO, Ozone, etc) and to collect particulate materials or 2.5 microns and 10 microns in size.  In addition the Trustee had 16 onsite monitors operating before and during the demolition of the stacks.  Two days after the demolition the Trustee reported that their data showed the demolition did not produce and harmful dust and that “the demolition was a well controlled event, and the dust measures that we used were effective.”  What was not stated was that the measurements made were averaged over a period 24 hours, beginning at noon the day before the demolition.  The numbers used in the analysis provided then were averaged over a period where three-quarters of the results would be of little or no value.  In addition a number of sites were declared invalid due to “equipment malfunction” or use of inappropriate screens to test for silicates.  In actual facts even the data from the Trustee showed there were significant spikes in the dust and dust levels after the demolition.  It is these spikes and not their averages that should be of concern since the dust cloud itself was dispersed over a much wider area than was officially reported and thus the smaller, more hazardous particles would have reached a much larger population than calculated.

Cleanup of Asarco dust in Juarez barrio school

Cleanup of Asarco dust in Juarez barrio school

To underscore the point that the “clean demolition” was anything but that a report in the El Paso Times on April 20th one week later reported volunteers cleaning up a local barrio school in a nearby Juarez elementary school.  Classes had been cancelled at the school due to the “fallout” from the demolition.  “Everything is dirty and smells like burnt metal,” commented one of the parent volunteers, who wore a surgical mask and rubber gloves as she began cleaning using a bucket of water with Clorox and soap.  “It feels like the day of demolition.  Dust is everywhere,” she said.  Everything  was reported by TCEQ and Semarnap as “within regulatory standards” but the residents of this barrio remained concerned.  “It is like if Asarco were operating.  Years ago,  I could event taste the pollutants in the air.  On Saturday, I could smell them again” said a long time resident of the barrio.

Experts continue to question the effectiveness of the monitoring and analysis post-demolition.  Many are calling for analysis for dioxins, PCBs, and asbestos all known to have been burned or used in the stacks over the almost five decades since the large stack had been constructed.  Even cement “dust” is not benign, as silicates which makes up a major portion of Portland cement are highly toxic and carcinogenic.  To ensure that El Paso and its neighbors to the south, Cd. Juarez are properly protected from the potential environmental health hazard represented by this demolition the leaders of our communities should not just rely on the judgment and analysis carried out by the Trustee and his company.  As already shown much of the information given out by the Trustee to the public was erroneous or simply untrue.  Our leadership at the local, State and Federal levels should be demanding third party analysis of the pertinent dust and demolition samples  taken before and after the stacks came down.  More importantly, this type of third party analysis should be conducted for the entire remediation plan now being carried out by Project Navigator where the Trustee is a principal (owner) in the company.   Critical questions should be asked and answered through objective third party analysis of the proposed burial not only of the stack remnants but all of the identified (and unidentified) waste products being placed in the various “impermeable” cells on or near the Parker Brothers arroyo. 

Officials of TCEQ and EPA need to be held accountable by the actions of Project Navigator and its Trustee, Mr. Puga.  To date they have done little more than to rubber stamp the actions proposed and then carried out by them, despite the protestations and continued questions posed by citizen groups and a number of our community leaders.  City Representatives Susie Byrd and Emma Acosta, County Judge Veronica Escobar, State Senator Jose Rodriguez and Congressman Beto O’Rourke have all shown their willingness to ask the tough questions and to demand our federal and state officials to do their jobs and ensure the safety of our region.  Unfortunately, to date these agencies and the Trustee have simply moved forward, ignoring these officials concerns and continued to provide misinformation or empty assurances that they know what’s best for region.

We urge the leaders of our border community to hold these officials accountable and demand third party analysis of the entire Asarco remediation action.  Congressman O’Rourke in particular should ask the Congressional General Accounting Office, which exists specifically for just such analysis and investigations, to carry out an investigation of all the actions surrounding the Asarco “cleanup.”  Once Mr. Puga and his company leave town it will be too late and the region can expect to be dealing with the aftermath of leaking cells and environmental contamination emanating from the Asarco property for decades to come.  Our border region deserves better.—Paul Maxwell

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One thought on “Gone With The Wind–The Asarco Stacks Are No More

  1. Kudos Paul…

    Mr. Puga came here as the representative of the Asarco bankruptcy, intent upon and assigned to make the maximum cash for the “clean-up.” He had no remit to do anything for El Paso, and we could not expect him to do so unless forced. The leaders of El Paso have been obsessed with the notion of the “creative class” constructed by Richard Florida; unfortunately neither public nor private leadership, with rare exceptions as noted in the article, showed any creativity whatsoever in the Asarco affair. Nor did they evince any concern about the health and safety of the population.

    Their disdain was matched by that of the state and federal environmental agencies. It is difficult to imagine such a debacle being played out in, say, San Diego. But then of course it is equally difficult to imagine the wait times on the international bridges that are common here being imposed on Californians.

    We might well ask ourselves what went wrong here. There are many useful lessons to be learned. Meantime, feeling insignificant out here in far west Texas?

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