News Room

Asarco: Clean air vs. jobs an issue for TCEQ
January 2, 2008

Although the issue might appear to affect only the El Paso region, the implications run across Texas, contends state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, one of Asarco's fiercest critics.

Written by Gary Scharrer, San Antonio Express-News


AUSTIN — Texas environmental regulators soon are expected to settle a dispute in El Paso about the future of an old copper smelter.

Supporters argue that good-paying jobs justify reopening Asarco on the fringes of downtown El Paso. Opponents counter that reopening the smelter 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.

The state of New Mexico along with the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and city councils in three states oppose the reopening of the smelter, whose towering 828-foot-high stack competes with the neighboring Franklin mountains for El Paso's skyline. Asarco, except for a skeleton maintenance crew, shut down in 1999 when copper prices plummeted to about 60 cents a pound.

Both sides have commissioned studies to reinforce their respective positions and bought TV spots to wedge the community between pro- and anti-Asarco stands. The real target, however, is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is expected to rule on Feb. 13 whether to renew Asarco's air permit.

With the price of copper now running 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.

Although the issue might appear to affect only the El Paso region, the implications run across Texas, contends state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, one of Asarco's fiercest critics.

"Asarco is the fault line of a clean air future," he said. "In El Paso, a 100-year-old lead 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 reopening, the smelter could 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 Asarco has not proved its case, the executive director for the TCEQ has recommended 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."

Economic impact

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.

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. A coalition of cities has filed suit to stop the Oak Grove power plant.

Asarco's opponents vow legal action if the state environmental commission approves the renewal permit.

A fully operating smelter makes Asarco a huge economic player in El Paso, Johnson said. El Paso's low-skill call centers pay between $7 and $11 an hour with few benefits in contrast to Asarco's $20-an-hour jobs and full benefits, he said.

"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 said.

El Paso's state senator and other Asarco critics complain that the air modeling resulting in the TCEQ staff endorsing the smelter's air permit renewal should be discounted because Asarco paid the consultant who did the work.

"The 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 pointed to Executive Director Glenn Shankle's July report to the commission countering objections from various parties in the case.

Shankle addressed the conflict of interest allegation by explaining 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."

Shankle said his staff closely scrutinized the contractor's work, which he endorsed as being independent and consistent with the agreement.

El Paso's political leaders are taking the lead in opposing Asarco, with the city councils of El Paso, Sunland Park, N.M., and Juarez, Mexico, meeting together last summer and passing a unified resolution against the smelter's air permit renewal. U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, also opposes the permit, as does the New Mexico Environmental Department.

And New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson urged Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a letter last year not to allow Asarco to reopen.

Students join fight

But 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.

Some University of Texas at El Paso students also have joined the fight against the smelter, which is within a mile of the university.

"It's incredibly important," said recent UTEP graduate Jacqueline Barragan, 25. "As a young person, it will affect whether or not I decide to stay in El Paso. It's my community. I feel I deserve to choose to stay where my family is and to participate in the decisions about the progress of El Paso."

Related Stories

Fair Use Notice
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a "fair use" of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use", you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.