Wednesday, October 10, 2007

EL PASO: Another One of Our Comunidades Is The Target of Environmental Racism

Reopening of El Paso copper smelter worries some
by **Gary Scharrer, Express-News Austin Bureau**

October 7, 2007

* ** AUSTIN — Supporters argue that good-paying jobs justify reopening
an old copper smelter on the fringes of downtown El Paso.

Opponents counter that such a move would foul the air with some 15
million pounds of pollutants per year, risking health and putting a big
smudge on the city's reputation.

City councils in three states and two countries oppose reopening the
ASARCO smelter, whose towering 828-foot stack competes with the
neighboring Franklin Mountains for El Paso's skyline.

Both sides have commissioned studies to reinforce their positions and
are buying television spots to wedge the community between pro- and
anti- ASARCO stands. The real target, however, is the Texas Commission
on Environmental Quality, which could rule this year on whether to renew
ASARCO's air permit.

Except for a skeleton maintenance crew, the smelter shut down in 1999
when copper prices plummeted to about 60 cents a pound.

With the price of copper now running at about $3.60 a pound, ASARCO is
eager to reopen the plant, which would produce $20-an-hour jobs with
benefits for about 300 people.

"ASARCO is the fault line of a clean air future," said state Sen. Eliot
Shapleigh, D-El Paso, one of the company's fiercest critics. "In El
Paso, a 100-year-old ... smelter that has polluted cities across the
United States, that has left $24 billion of liabilities for the
taxpayer, wants a license to do it again. Once that permit is in place,
it is forever, and other cities ought to watch closely."

If state environmental regulators approve ASARCO's request, the smelter
would be allowed to release 7,560 tons of pollutants each year in the
form of particular matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon
monoxide, lead and volatile organic compounds. Most of the emissions —
6,673 tons — would come in the form of sulfur dioxide.

But keep that in perspective, argues Lairy Johnson, ASARCO's
environmental manager. A normal household of four with two vehicles
generates about 110 tons of emissions per year, he said.

Although administrative law judges have ruled that ASARCO has not proved
its case, the executive director for the Texas Commission on
Environmental Quality recently recommended that the smelter be allowed
to reopen. The agency's toxicology section concluded: "We do not expect
adverse health effects to occur among the general public as a result of
exposure to the proposed emissions from this facility."

Companies with air emission permits typically are spared contested case
hearings when up for renewal so long as there have been no modifications
in the permit specifications.

"The science is complete, and the science illustrates the fact that
we're not going to be a health hazard and that we're not going to
contribute to air pollution," Johnson claims.

*Consultant paid*

Shapleigh and other ASARCO critics complain that air modeling that
prompted TCEQ staff to endorse the smelter's air permit renewal should
be discounted because ASARCO paid the consultant who did the work.

"The (TCEQ) executive director said we are not entitled to a hearing;
it's grandfathered and you can't contest it. Now he says that health
doesn't play an issue in it, and then he has ASARCO's employee doing the
air modeling report," Shapleigh said. "Does that give you a pretty good
idea of how the agency views these permits?"

Agency officials said they could not discuss the pending case but
referred to Executive Director Glenn Shankle's July report countering
objections from various parties.

Shankle addressed the conflict of interest allegation by explaining that
the company-paid consultant and ASARCO "agreed to only communicate in
the presence of a TCEQ representative and to copy TCEQ on all written or
electronic communication."

Shapleigh sees El Paso's fight for clean air similar to other efforts
elsewhere in Texas.

The three TCEQ commissioners recently overturned administrative law
judges' recommendations and approved a TXU Corp. plan to build two
coal-fired power units southeast of Waco.

ASARCO's opponents vow legal action if a renewal permit is approved.

"Suburbs north of Dallas, San Antonio and Austin and west of Houston are
now driving state politics, and those suburbs, especially the soccer
moms, want clean air. Mayors from Dallas to Houston to El Paso are
leading clean air movements because all recognize the implication for
jobs and the reality that the TCEQ is run by polluters" Shapleigh said,
noting that Texas leads the country in a number of air pollution

El Paso's political leaders are taking the lead in opposing ASARCO, with
the city councils of El Paso, Sunland Park, N.M., and Ciudad Juárez,
Mexico, meeting together this summer and passing a joint resolution
against the permit renewal.

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, also opposes the permit, as does
the New Mexico Environment Department.


El Paso's business community has largely remained silent on the issue.

Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce President Richard Dayoub said his
board is awaiting the results of a University of Texas at El Paso study
on the potential harmful impact of ASARCO's reopening.

In a study for ASARCO, the University's Institute for Policy and
Economic Development determined that ASARCO would infuse more than $1
billion annually into El Paso's economy if it were to reopen.

The smelter's supporters contend that 300 decent-paying jobs merit a
permit for reopening.

"I want them to open because it's going to employ a lot of people. They
have been cleared of any problems — the air pollution, none of that, is
going to hurt anybody at all," El Pasoan Tina Gianes said.

Pollution from neighboring Mexico is far more serious, she said.

Another ASARCO supporter, David Romaka, said the smelter deserves to
reopen because the company has met all the rules.

"This is a prime case of hysteria that politicians use to get votes, and
hurt the working class that need good-paying jobs," Romaka said.

But good-paying jobs can't make up for bad health, said Danny Arrellano,
53, who worked at ASARCO for 24 years.

"What's that going to do you any good when you get older? You're going
to be sick even if you earn all that money. What good will it do you?"
Arrellano asked.

He's been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disorder he
blames on working conditions.

El Paso pharmacist Joe Pinon has been researching the impact of lead and
other smelter pollution since the 1950s. He blames the smelter for
causing developmental problems for children living in Mexican shacks
across the Rio Grande from ASARCO.

Pinon is not optimistic that ASARCO will be stopped from reopening.

"The company's strategy is, deny, deny, deny. It's the same story
forever and ever," he said. "They have half of the public bamboozled."

But he credits young people, particularly UTEP students, for waging a
full-scale fight against ASARCO. The smelter is within a mile of the

Recent UTEP graduate Jacqueline Barragan, 25, is one of them.

"It's incredibly important. As a young person, it will affect whether or
not I decide to stay in El Paso. It's my community," she said.

*The environment: How Texas ranks nationally*
• 1st — Air pollution emissions

• 1st — Amount of greenhouse gases released

• 1st — Amount of toxic chemicals released into water

• 1st — Number of clean water permit violations

• 1st — Amount of cancer-causing carcinogens released into the air

• 1st — Amount of hazardous waste generated

• 4th — Amount of toxic chemicals released into air

/Source: 'Texas on the Brink: How Texas Ranks Among the 50 States,'
January 2007, from compilations of EPA reports and others, including
Scorecard: The Pollution Information Site /

Copyright 2007 San Antonio Express-News