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Apr-11-2013 12:25printcomments

Taking a Stand on the Rio Grande

In the final days before the expected destruction of the Asarco stacks, critics have not ceased their demands for a halt to the demolition.

American Smelting and Refinery Company (Asarco) plant on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas.
American Smelting and Refinery Company (Asarco) plant on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. Courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org

(LAS CRUCES, NM) - The clock is rapidly ticking on the two towering smokestacks of the former American Smelting and Refinery Company (Asarco) plant on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. As workers ready the ground for the planned demolition on April 13, at about the break of dawn, local photographers are scurrying to get what may well be the last images of a historic symbol of the Paso del Norte borderland. On Paisano Drive and Executive Center Boulevard near the stacks, camera-snapping documentarians have been noticeably visible in the past few days. But in the final days before the expected destruction of the Asarco stacks, critics have not ceased their demands for a halt to the demolition on environmental and public health grounds. Activists from both sides of the border contend that contaminant-laced dust from collapsing stacks which once emitted metals and hazardous waste could pollute the Rio Grande as well as jeopardize the well-being of people who live in close proximity to the moth-balled plant. On Saturday, April 6, about 75 residents of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, gathered in protest near the shut-down smelter and at a historic site of the 1910 Mexican Revolution on the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. There, they declared Asarco a “Monument to Dehumanization and Barbarism.”


The event was organized by Answers Wanted on Asarco Remediation and our Environmental Health (AWARE) of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez’s Collective against the Demolition of the Asarco Smokestacks. “We’re not against the destruction of the chimneys, but if they do it we want an (environmental impact) study,” said Ciudad Juarez writer and activist Juan Carlos Martinez. “What’s the hurry? And why on the 13th, which is an ominous day?” Veteran border environmentalist Bill Addington called the demolition another instance of environmental racism. “I think this is a prime example of what is happening here in Juarez and El Paso. Why is the border different than the rest of the country?” People living in the “shadow of the smokestacks” ail from cancer and leukemia, Addington said, adding that locals were unknowingly subjected to a toxic incineration operation (1991-98) done with the knowledge of U.S. and Texas state environmental regulators. “TCEQ Test Me,” read placards carried by protestors, in reference to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and public doubts about the complete range of substances incinerated at Asarco’s El Paso plant. In an act of symbolism, Martinez invited the rally-goers to build a physical monument to Asarco and “all transnational companies” that ravage the earth. Soon, a mound a rocks was piled below a cross under the last gazes of the stacks. At least three Border Patrol vehicles were parked on the ground immediately above the protest, while a group of workers at the old smelter watched the event from across the road. Former Asarco workers Patrick Garza and Mario Nevarez were among the demonstrators against demolition. In interviews with FNS, Garza and Nevarez contended that ex-workers, including forty of whom have since died, were sickened by working at the smelter.


Garza, for instance, said doctors detected high levels of cadmium and arsenic in his system. Hoisting a large picture of sulfur streaks inside one of the Asarco stacks, Garza said he suffered from multiple sclerosis, a condition he attributed to on-the-job exposure. “I tried to show OSHA, EPA, and everybody disregarded it,” he said. Nevarez, who said he quit Asarco in 1995 after 13 years of employment, recalled shipments of hazardous waste that arrived in the 1990s for supposed recycling, a business which was later determined by the EPA to constitute a “sham” operation for which the company was fined. “There were trainloads coming in all the time, but we figured they were materials from the mines. We never imagined it was hazardous material.” Nevarez said. “Company would tell us we were industrial athletes, but all the time we were industrial guinea pigs.” As of press time, neither the EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas nor the agency’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. had responded to questions from FNS about the full nature of possible contaminants in the smokestacks as well as the federal agency’s final stance on the demolition, which was earlier given the go-ahead by the TCEQ in spite of opposition from local elected officials who requested a delay. Appointed by the TCEQ to clean-up the site, the Asarco Custodial Trust has posted testing results for possible contaminants on its website at www.recastingthesmelter.com. According to the data, no contaminants of concern were found in recent tests of the stacks. The website also features an interesting bevy of earlier letters, both pro and con, regarding the demolition and its impact on the environment and cultural legacy of the Paso del Norte. About a dozen residents of Ciudad Juarez neighborhoods located just across the Rio Grande from Asarco participated in the anti-demolition rally, complaining that they were not even aware of the pending fall of the stacks until recent days. Ciudad Juarez’s civil protection department had not informed all the potentially affected residents who live closet to the shut-down plant site, they said.


Guillermina Diaz and Silvia Chavez pointed the finger at Asarco for the historic health problems in colonias like Ladrillera, which sits a short distance from the smelter. Diaz remembered the years from 1986 to 1990, when emissions from the smokestacks were so thick that the neighbors “couldn’t breathe” and had to stay inside. Chavez said she had a grandchild who died of cancer at one month of age, and another one who developed bronchitis. The Ciudad Juarez residents were uncertain about their options on demolition day. “What are we going to do?” Chavez asked. “We can’t do anything. We have nowhere to go.” While some of her neighbors are planning to evacuate for the big event, the majority intend to stay put, she said. Chavez later said her house and other nearby residences were already in poor shape due to damages incurred from severe flooding in 2006. Recalling how a shooting in the neighborhood once shook up windows, she questioned how the demolition of the two smokestacks would affect already-fragile homes. On the Monday prior to the blasting of the stacks, the municipal civil protection department toured the neighborhood distributing facial masks and assuring residents that everything would be okay, according to the resident. But Chavez added that officials didn’t stop at her mother’s home while she was visiting. FNS was unable to reach Ciudad Juarez Civil Protection Director Efren Matamoros, but the official and other Mexican environmental authorities were quoted in local media last week saying that no mandatory evacuations from neighborhoods close to the stacks were necessary, and that the blast event should go off without problems. AWARE activists criticize the Asarco Custodial Trust for the April 5 release of an updated demolition plan, maintaining that the posting of the document a little more than a week before demolition day was not sufficient time for public review. Posted on recastingthesmelter.com, the plan acknowledges that “vibrations from demolition events can potentially impact nearby structures,” but states that no damages are expected within a half-mile radius of the smokestacks. Listed at 128 pages but difficult to download in its entirety, the demolition plan contains details on dust suppression efforts prior to and during the blast event, road closures, security procedures, and potential emergency responses in the event of an unexpected catastrophic incident like the 612-foot stack, the smaller of the two, falling over the Rio Grande and landing in Ciudad Juarez. On the question of public engagement and transparency, the Asarco Custodial Trust noted regular meetings since January 2013 with the City of El Paso, City of Juarez, TCEQ, EPA, FAA, Texas Department of Transportation, International Boundary and Water Commission, and US Border Patrol. Residents of El Paso’s Calavera neighborhood down the road from Asarco “will be given the opportunity to stay in a hotel on the weekend of the blast event,” the demolition plan states. The Asarco demolition and assets recovery project is moving along a sub-contracting chain. The Asarco Custodial Trust assigned overall management of the project to London-based Environmental Resources Management, which then awarded responsibility for the demolition job to Brandenberg Industrial Service Company. Brandenberg, in turn, handed the physical task to the Dykon Explosive Demolition Corporation, headed by explosives expert Jim Redyke. The Asarco Custodial Trust credits Dykon for more than 100 chimney and stadium demolitions worldwide. If winds like the ones that clobbered the Paso del Norte on April 8 and 9 kick up, the demolition could be delayed. However, the weather forecasts call for a sunny and relatively calm day. Although the Asarco smokestacks are sentenced to disappear forever from the border skyline, the issues and controversies that billowed from them are almost certain to linger. In a post-rally statement, AWARE said residents of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez “have set out to determine how a murky (Asarco) bankruptcy process” led the EPA and TCEQ to cede responsibility for the project to a custodial trust. Challenging the post-smelter remediation process, the activist group stated: “In an era of bankruptcy-driven industrial remediations, a cash strapped federal Superfund program, and a state environmental agency looking to shed environmental liability costs, community members want to know how the cleanup has managed to proceed without the public review and oversight processes traditionally associated with a large-scale remediation.”


-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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