Asarco LLC Finally Abandons Efforts to Reopen Copper Smelter; El Paso Looks to a Cleaner Future
February 11, 2009
Sierra Club and allies won a long, hard-fought battle to protect children from toxic pollution when, last week, Tucson-based Asarco LLC announced it was ending its efforts to reopen its copper smelter in El Paso, Texas. Environmental groups and local community members have been fighting against the smelter for years, arguing that the facility would release thousands of tons of air pollutants each year and contaminate surrounding neighborhoods. Asarco cited the economic downturn as the reason for its decision and agreed to work with Texas environmental officials to leave the site in a condition that would allow its reuse. The first smelter opened on the site in 1887 and since then, successive generations have continued to process metals on the site. This decision represents an end to polluting practices that have plagued the area for over a century and allows El Paso to work towards a cleaner and brighter future.
June 17, 2008
On June 17, 2008 the Sierra Club, along with Environmental Integrity Project and Public Citizen/Texas Office, sent a joint letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey urging him “to immediately launch a full scale review of the environmental record of all bidders,” in the ASARCO takeover. Click the link to read the full press release and the letter the groups sent to Mukasey.
June 3, 2008
On June 3rd, 2008 the Sierra Club joined four other environmental organizations in urging that the ownership of Asarco not be turned over to a company with a history of polluting.
Click here to read the full press release on this pivotal effort!
February 13, 2008
On February 13 the three-member Texas Commission on Environmental Quality voted to approve renewal of a state air pollution permit for the ASARCO metal smelter in El Paso, which would allow the smelter to reopen. Sierra Club will work with the City of El Paso and community members to evaluate next steps, but the community has made it clear that they want to keep the smelter closed forever and get ASARCO to clean up the area.
The Sierra Club, the City of El Paso and community members insist that ASARCO has done enough damage to the health and livelihood of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez and does not deserve this additional chance to pollute. For the 112 years that it operated, the ASARCO smelter emitted hundreds of tons of lead, arsenic, and cadmium into the sky and onto the homes of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez residents. Children living in the area, ranging from 2-6 years of age, showed blood lead levels high enough to warrant immediate medical intervention.
Sierra Club believes that it is critical for public health, for air quality, for promoting compliance with environmental law, and for Texas-Mexico border relations for the ASARCO smelter to remain closed. The City of El Paso hopes to transition to a cleaner, 21st century economy with "green-collar" jobs and healthy residents. ASARCO represents the past, and the Sierra Club will continue to support community efforts to keep the smelter closed.
October 11, 2007
Famous scholar and advocate Dr. Robert Bullard has referred to the quest for environmental justice as a marathon and not a sprint; in the case of the ASARCO smelter, the truth of these words is painfully evident. Community groups in El Paso are continuing their effort to hold this long-time polluter accountable for its years of endangering the health and safety of the surrounding region. In October of 2007, Sierra Club, along with Get the Lead Out coalition requested that County Attorney José Rodríguez seek criminal charges against Asarco for its activities, including burning toxic waste for nearly a decade. Get the Lead Out has distributed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents which indicate that the smelter accepted close to 50,000 tons of hazardous materials to burn at their El Paso smelter. In addition, Asarco has emitted hundreds of tons of highly toxic substances such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium onto the communities of El Paso and Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. A spokesman reported that the county attorney will review the group's request for the next week and a half and then make his determination.
June 16, 2007
Communities on both sides of the border are actively opposing the proposed reopening of the ASARCO smelter. In June 2007 decision-makers of El Paso, Sunland Park, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico converged at Monument 1, the area near the banks of the Rio Grande where the borders of their three cities and two countries meet, to sign a resolution against ASARCO. This historic joint meeting came one month after the El Paso City Council voted unanimously to oppose the reopening; during the summit Sunland Park and Ciudad Juarez joined El Paso in taking an official stance against ASARCO’s air permit renewal.
Since 2003, the Sierra Club has led the campaign to keep the ASARCO smelter closed and to hold the company accountable for cleaning up its mess. On June 18, 2007 the Sierra Club submitted comments (available below) to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality urging the commission to consider the facts and immediately deny the permit. The commission is expected to make it’s decision on whether or not to renew ASARCO’s air permit sometime this fall; in the mean time the Sierra Club will continue to work with local communities to oppose this dangerous plant. To learn more about the Club’s efforts and about ASARCO’s dirty history, visit Beyond the Borders.
November 1, 2006
The Sierra Club’s campaign on behalf of the communities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez received further vindication from a recently released 1998 internal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) memorandum showing that ASARCO'S El Paso smelter made a practice of burning hazardous waste that it claimed to be recycling. EPA referred to ASARCO’s and its subsidiary, Encycle’s, actions as “plain and simple, illegal treatment and disposal of hazardous waste”. ASARCO and Encycle had a permit to remove metals from hazardous waste products; the EPA memo states that the companies acted in violation of this permit, illegally treating and disposing of more than 5,000 tons of hazardous waste. Included in this amount was several hundred tons of hazardous waste that came from the former Army Chemical Warfare Depot. In his letter to members of the Congressional Committee on Government Reform Congressman Silvestre Reyes points out that “illegal handling and destruction of Department of Defense (DoD) hazardous waste raises serious questions. The possibility of releasing chemical weapons waste or other DoD hazardous waste into local communities is alarming at best” (Read the rest of this letter below). The Sierra Club will continue its efforts to keep ASARCO’s dangerous El Paso plant shut down.
February 9, 2006
In a disappointing move, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has decided to give ASARCO more time to argue that it will not harm air quality in the El Paso region by opening its copper smelter. The decision comes after a year of public hearings and an administrative court decision concluding that the plant owners failed to prove they would change the plant’s horrible track record of pollution if allowed to reopen shop. It also comes a week after a new Sierra Club study was released showing that pollution in the region was directly caused by the ASARCO smelter. Activists from throughout the region traveled to Austin to anxiously await the verdict, which they had hoped would finally shut down the smelter and allow local communities to focus instead on cleaning up the pollution. The TCEQ decision now extends the process by another year, and requires ASARCO to complete air modeling to show the impacts of reopening the polluting smelter.
January 31, 2006
A new Sierra Club study was released today that proves soil contamination in the El Paso region was caused by the ASARCO copper smelter, which spewed hundreds of tons of lead, arsenic, and cadmium into communities on both sides of the U.S. – Mexico Border during a century of operation. The study disproves the company's claims that the pollution had come from fertilizer and paint. It also comes as local residents brace themselves for a decision expected next week from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as to whether they will allow the smelter to reopen and emit 7,000 tons of new pollutants each year. Last year an administrative court ruled that the plant had a horrible record of pollution and that it had failed to prove that reopening the smelter would not harm air quality in the area. Local activists are hopeful that the new study will convince the TCEQ to protect local communities by closing the polluting smelter once and for all.
October 28, 2005
Communities on both sides of the border are celebrating an administrative court’s ruling that would stop plans to reopen ASARCO copper smelter in El Paso, a major source of lead and arsenic pollution in the region. The court’s decision concluded that the plant owners failed to prove that they would change the plant’s horrible track record of pollution if allowed to reopen shop, and recommended that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reject the plant’s permit renewal application. However, the ruling is nonbinding and the real test of the judgment will come during a TCEQ hearing on the permit renewal which has not yet been scheduled. As local Sierra Club organizer Oliver Bernstein summed up, “the evidence presented during the hearing process made clear what citizens already know: ASARCO is El Paso’s worst citizen.” If the permit is denied, local activists will be able to shift their attention to cleaning up legacy of pollution already created by the smelter. Check back for updates on the TCEQ hearing and future decisions.
February 8, 2005
El Paso, Texas is home to several extractive industries, one of which is the American Smelting and Refinery Company of El Paso (ASARCO). This lead and copper refinery was in operation for over a century (1887-1999), in this time emitting hundreds of tons of lead, arsenic and cadmium into the surrounding American and Mexican communities along the U.S. – Mexico Border. Despite litigation against ASARCO in the 1970s over the contamination it produced, public health and government officials failed to hold ASARCO accountable and chronic pollution problems persist. Since July 2002 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been using Superfund money to remove soil from some of the most affected residences near the smelter, but the contamination problem has not been addressed in the poorer areas around El Paso and across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Unfortunately, there is less awareness in Ciudad Juárez about the dangers of the contamination. In response, the Sierra Club’s El Paso Group and Beyond the Borders Program have been organizing and educating residents about the threats posed by the ASARCO facility.
When the ASARCO smelter ceased active operations in 1999, many hoped that it would be for good. However, in 2002 the company applied to renew its state air permit with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Due to immense public interest in the permit and operations at the smelter, TCEQ granted an ongoing hearing on the permit application which began January 2005. At the first hearing, Sierra Club successfully became a legal party in the process. Now, over the next six to nine months the Club will provide expert testimony and legal input on the decision whether to renew the air permit and how to protect the health of citizens on both sides of the border.
Details and Documents:
Snuffing Asarco: EPA may keep smelter closed
May 3, 2008, by Staff, El Paso Times
Officials who OK'd Asarco permit criticized, praised
February 26, 2008, by Brandi Grissom, Las Cruces Sun-News
Students Fight Asarco
February 12, 2008, by Adriana Gomez Lincon, The Prospector
January 13, 2008, by El Paso Times Staff , El Paso Times
El Paso paid the price during Asarco heyday
November 18, 2007, by Steve Fischer , El Paso Times
GAO Report Sheds Light on Asarco 'Misconduct', Reyes Says
November 13, 2007, by Sito Negron, Newspaper Tree
Group says Asarco illegally burned waste
October 3, 2007, by Darren Meritz, El Paso Times
Asarco Noose Tightens, But Who Will Hang?
June 29, 2007, by Sito Negron, Newspaper Tree
Comments to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality re: Air Permit Renewal
June 18, 2007, Sierra Club
GAO inquiry into Asarco sought
October 14, 2006, by Vic Kolenc El Paso Times
EPA memo: Asarco burned waste
October 12, 2006, by Staff and Wire Reports, Arizona Daily Star
See some pictures of the ASARCO plant
The ASARCO El Paso Smelter: A Source of Local Contamination of Soils in El Paso (Texas), Ciudad Juarez (Chihuahua, Mexico), and Anapra (New Mexico)
January 31, 2006, Sierra Club Study by Michael E. Ketterer, Ph.D. (2.15 MB file)
Asarco has another chance to get permit
February 9, 2006, by Brandi Grissom, El Paso Times
Caso Asarco: años de controversia (Asarco case: Years of Controversy)
February 9, 2006, by Erick Falcón, El Diario
Posponen decisión del permiso de Asarco (Asarco permit decision postponed)
February 8, 2006, by Erick Falcón, El Diario
Sierra Club study links El Paso lead to ASARCO
January 31, 2006, by Alicia Caldwell, Associated Press in Star Telegram
Panel recommends state deny ASARCO permit
October 28, 2005, by Diana Washington Valdez, El Paso Times
Judges recommend against new air permit for El Paso smelter
October 28, 2005, by the Associated Press in Star-Telegram
See other "Safeguarding Communities" cases.