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ASARCO IS DONE: Smelter closing, to be demolished
February 4, 2009

In the letter, the EPA said crucial equipment at the El Paso plant was in need of repair or replacement, and that the smelter might not be able to comply with federal air quality standards if it reopened as is: "Our review (of the Asarco plant) confirms our initial conclusion that, after the lengthy shutdown of nine years, the plant has been 'permanently shut down.' "

Written by Diana Washington Valdez, The El Paso Times


Holding tanks will be part of the many structures at the Asarco smelter that will be demolished after the company announced plans to halt efforts to reopen. (Victor Calzada / El Paso Times)

EL PASO -- Citing a "dramatic downturn" in the price of copper in the world market, Asarco LLC announced Tuesday that it will abandon its long and hard-fought plans to restart its copper smelter and instead will tear it down.

The fight over whether the smelter, which has been a landmark in El Paso for 112 years, should reopen had been one of the most controversial and emotional battles in recent city history.

"Unfortunately, due to the extreme economic conditions worldwide that have occurred during the last six months, we can no longer financially afford to continue pursuing that goal," said Thomas L. Aldrich, Asarco vice president of environmental affairs.

"We're deeply saddened by this decision, and we'd like to thank all of our many supporters in El Paso and Texas. We also want to assure the community that we're working to ensure that our property is left in a condition that will be an asset to a great community that we have enjoyed working and living in for more than 110 years."

El Pasoan Juan Garza, who helped launch Get the Lead Out, a grass-roots organization opposed to restarting the smelter, said he was surprised by the sudden turn of events.

"I'm happy this is taking place, but I will not believe it until I see towers go down," Garza said. "I've only ever wanted to protect our kids in school and my kids from having to breathe Asarco's emissions."

The city governments of El Paso, Juárez and Sunland Park also were opposed to restarting the smelter process.

El Paso Mayor John Cook called the announcement "very encouraging news." "It's something the past three city administrations had pursued. It's also beneficial for our tri-state and binational region," he said.

El Paso has spent thousands of dollars on litigation to permanently shut down Asarco.

Jaime Torres, spokesman for Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, said Juárez welcomed the news. "Our city government took part in forums to voice our opposition. The city did so to protect the community's health."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said, "I am proud of the role New Mexico has played in keeping our region's air clean and healthy for local residents. This decision to shutter the Asarco El Paso smelter once and for all comes on the same day that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared Texas' permit for the facility invalid and directed environmental regulators in that state to start over."

Asarco had been trying since 2002 to reopen its El Paso copper smelter after mothballing the operation in 1999.

The fight, to open the smelter on one hand and to keep it closed on the other, took on urgency as both sides mustered resources for what became a bitter campaign.

Opponents held rallies and demonstration marches, and they asserted that the smelter would spew tons of pollutants into the air, ground and water. The city took legal action to try to stop the smelter from reopening and challenged Asarco every step along the way. At one point, it was estimated that the city had spent about $1 million to fight Asarco.

Smelter officials countered that if the smelter were to reopen it would be clean and modern and would create high-paying jobs with good benefits. Television commercials showed potential Asarco employees telling viewers, "I want to work for Asarco."

In February 2008, the issue came to a head at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, which was to review Asarco's request for a new air permit.

Hundreds of El Pasoans went to Austin to oppose the smelter's permit, and when the commission ruled in favor of Asarco, emotions boiled over.

Commissioners were called lapdogs of industry leaders, and they were accused of improper behavior.

Asarco officials called the decision well reasoned. Even then, the city continued its challenge of TCEQ's decision but was rejected.

The city filed several legal challenges in state and bankruptcy courts, some of which have yet to be resolved.

El Pasoan Arturo Rivera, who retired as a production supervisor from Asarco in 1999 and worked at the plant for 27 years, was saddened by the news that Asarco would not open.

"Asarco pumped $14 million into this community each year," Rivera said. "I was hoping it would reopen because it would create good jobs for others who were laid off in 1999 who did not have a pension yet. I was exposed to metals and the emissions, but I was well protected and never experienced any health problems.

"If the plant was located in another part of the city, I don't think we would have had a problem. The people in the West Side didn't want it there. I also hope the tower stays up."

Over the past year, copper prices on the world market have plummeted, making investments in metals industries like Asarco, which is in bankruptcy proceedings, financially unattractive.

Asarco had shut down the smelter in 1999 when copper prices fell then to about 70 cents a pound, but held on to the facility. As copper prices started to soar in recent years, to as much as $4 a pound, so did the company's interest in firing up the El Paso plant.

But, by October, industry analysts such as Logic Advisors and others were reporting a 50 percent drop in the price of copper. Tuesday, March copper futures closed at $1.522 a pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Heather McMurray, a member of Sunland Park Grassroots Environmental, an organization opposed to Asarco's reopening, said, "We knew this was coming down, but there is more to it than what's in the company's announcement."

Besides the economic issue, it appeared other problems of a regulatory nature were looming for Asarco, according to a Feb. 3 letter by the EPA-Region 6 in Dallas to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

In the letter, the EPA said crucial equipment at the El Paso plant was in need of repair or replacement, and that the smelter might not be able to comply with federal air quality standards if it reopened as is: "Our review (of the Asarco plant) confirms our initial conclusion that, after the lengthy shutdown of nine years, the plant has been 'permanently shut down.' "

The future of the Asarco site depends on regulators and the bankruptcy court that is overseeing the company's reorganization.

Asarco's Aldrich said the company is working with the state of Texas to fund a custodial trust for the demolition of the plant and remediation of the site.

The company has another plant in Amarillo, Texas, which will not be affected by the decision regarding the El Paso smelter, Aldrich said.

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