Copper giant ASARCO has a long history of polluting the communities in which it operates. The first environmental lawsuit against the company was brought in 1910, and its name is currently associated with 19 Superfund sites.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that ASARCO's copper smelter in El Paso, Texas, was responsible for high lead levels in local children. (Smokestacks of the El Paso smelter loom over children's playground in neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, above; smelter pictured below.) The city subsequently won a lawsuit against ASARCO, forcing it to agree to control its emissions. But public health and government officials failed to hold the company responsible, and chronic pollution problems persisted.
The smelter ceased operations in 1999, with several lawsuits still in progress. But ASARCO wants to reopen the facility, and in 2002 applied to renew its state air permit, prompting the Sierra Club to join a lawsuit to block the permit's issuance. The Club has been a leader in the campaign to keep the smelter closed ever since.
On September 23, Sierra Club Environmental Justice organizer Mariana Chew spearheaded planning and turnout for more than 1,000 people for a "Faces Against ASARCO" rally and photograph (below) in El Paso. Community members from both sides of the U.S./Mexico border came together in white t-shirts to stand united against plans to reopen the El Paso smelter.
Photo by Robert Ardovino
"The photo will be placed on a billboard in Austin for Governor [Rick] Perry to see every day," Chew says. It will also be delivered to Perry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Perry will shortly be making an appointment to the commission that could decide the smelter's fate. A commercial was also filmed at the Faces event that will air on El Paso TV stations.
Faces Against ASARCO was staged by the Concerned Citizens Against ASARCO coalition, of which the Sierra Club is a member. "The Club took a lead organizing role and provided technical support to the coalition," says Chew (below). "We led the research efforts on water and soil permits at the federal and bi-national level."
Chew was the coalition's go-to person fielding questions about evidence, documents, and studies pertaining to ASARCO. She was the main Juarez organizer for the Faces rally, and she helped bring together federal, state, and local legislators, and business and community representatives on both sides of the border.
"Mariana has been a fearless advocate for the Sierra Club on issues that required maximum courage--she's made me proud to be a member of the Club," says retired El Paso lawyer and Sierra Club member Taylor Moore, who has been active on the ASARCO campaign.
"The most important thing," Chew says modestly, "is that the City of El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, and Sunland Park [New Mexico] participated in a press conference and media work leading up to the event. Everybody and every organization, including federal legislators on both sides of the border, recognized our effort and the fact that we'd given them the tools to fight ASARCO on a political level."
In 2003 an administrative court issued a non-binding ruling denying ASARCO's petition to renew its air permit, on the grounds that the company had failed to prove the smelter would not contribute to air pollution. Three years later, a 1998 EPA memo was released showing that the company regularly burned hazardous waste in the El Paso smelter that it claimed to be recycling.
The El Paso City Council voted unanimously in May 2007 to keep the smelter closed, and in June elected officials from El Paso, Sunland Park, and Ciudad Juarez converged on the banks of the Rio Grande where the three cities meet to sign a resolution against ASARCO.
Now, thanks to Faces Against ASARCO, there is a compelling visual demonstrating the depth of public opposition to the smelter to back up that resolution. "A picture is worth a thousand activists," says Texas-based Sierra Club Deputy Press Secretary Oliver Bernstein.
Read more here and here.
Photos used with permission.