EL PASO— Students and citizens of this border city met Thursday at the University of Texas at El Paso to find ways to clean up and reclaim the land severely polluted by the century-old ASARCO copper-smelter.
“There’s over 75 ft. of lead laden slag right on this site and about 230 million cubic ft. of water in a plume, and so we’ve got to clean that stuff up and I think that’s the major concern most people have here,” said Senator Eliot Shapleigh.
The main speakers at the UTEP Student Government Association event included Senator Shapleigh and Custodial Trustee Robert Puga.
Puga, 44, has the responsibility of overseeing the cleanup and eventual distribution of the ASARCO properties. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he received a bachelor’s in Geophysics. Puga is a principal for Project Navigator Ltd. “One of his charges under his contract is he’s got to clean it to a standard that will protect the health and safety of this community and Juárez,” Shapleigh said.
In this city, ASARCO holds the notorious reputation of pumping outrageous amounts of hazardous chemicals into the El Paso air as well as the surrounding areas of Mexico and New Mexico.
“There’s been a fraud committed here,” Bill Addington said. Addington, a member of the executive committee of the El Paso Regional group of the Sierra Club, has been working on the ASARCO issue since the year 2000. “They’ve only given enough money for what they’re admitting is on the site, which is lead and arsenic. There are a lot of other pollutants there, especially from the 10 years of hazardous waste incineration that occurred,” said Addington.
The moneys Addington referred to were the $52 million provided to El Paso by the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality’s remediation plan in order to clean the 100 acres of land affected by the smelter.
“I tell you this: neither Mr. Puga nor the city is going let anyone be on this property if there are any health hazards there,” Shapleigh said.
Since ASARCO filed for bankruptcy and left El Paso last year, many have questioned what would become of the properties left behind. Different student organizations addressed the forum and presented their ideas. These included additional student housing and research centers.
“I have a meeting with the president of UTEP later this month. We’re going to be discussing potentially the sale of some of those properties to UTEP,” Puga said. He referred to the properties across the freeway from the iconic tower. These large amounts of lands are minimally impacted or not impacted at all, according to Puga. “I look forward to talking to them at the end of the month of February and seeing what kind of proposal they have for the Trust.”
“I believe that there is kind of a feeding frenzy on redevelopment,” said Addington, “They’re putting the cart before the horse. We should all be talking about proper remediation and honest testing.”
“We want to make sure that there aren’t any toxic material there and I fear that we are going to find them once they let us, if they let us, direct them to certain areas in the plant where we think the toxic chemicals were stored,” said Carlos Rodriguez, an ex-employee of ASARCO.
Special containers are to be built to store the material, according to Puga. Three were built before ASARCO left but only two were completed. “The bottoms are lined with plastic material to keep leaking form occurring,” Puga said. He explained that the containers range in size from two to about four acres each.
“I’m really concerned about the cleanup,” said Bob Guyer, another executive member of the Sierra Club. “A lot of the really toxic waste is going to be left here in El Paso. These caskets, is the way I understand it, these containers will contain this highly toxic waste for eternity. They are not removing it from here, you know. I’m real disappointed in that.”
During the forum’s Q & A section, Guyer asked why some of the $52 million isn’t used to relocate the toxic waste. “The rapid response to that, Mr. Guyer, is that the $52 million is not close to enough money to do that,” answered Puga.
“Well I don’t think that El Paso should settle for that,” said Guyer, “Why did we want to shut down Asarco for, anyway? Now we’re going to keep it all here in town so we can see it here everyday we drive down the freeway. What an amusement park that’s going to be.”