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Texas Commission for Environmental Quality says money to clear Asarco smelter site secured
February 15, 2009

The state has said $52 million will be needed and that the company will fund a trust to pay for remediation of the 100-acre site. Others, including Texas Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, say the cleanup may cost up to $250 million and taxpayers may wind up paying the bill.

Written by Ramon Bracamontes, The El Paso Times


EL PASO -- Now that Asarco has announced it will not open its copper smelter in El Paso, the attention has turned to its cleanup, how much it will cost and who will pay for it.

The state has said $52 million will be needed and that the company will fund a trust to pay for remediation of the 100-acre site. Others, including Texas Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, say the cleanup may cost up to $250 million and taxpayers may wind up paying the bill.

The higher estimate is based on the fact that in Tacoma, Wash., it has taken 26 years and $100 million to clean up the Asarco site that was shut down in 1983.

And, in Omaha, Neb., 10 years after the Asarco plant was demolished -- and a riverfront park put on top of it -- the EPA today continues to clean lead from contaminated homes. The cleanup is costing $400 million and contaminated homes span a 20-mile radius.

Asarco announced last week that it was ending all plans to reopen its 110-year-old smelter plant in El Paso. The announcement has local and state officials scurrying to make sure Asarco money is secured to clean up the site so that El Paso taxpayers are not left with a multimillion-dollar cleanup bill. The El Paso City Council is continuing to fight any permits Asarco is seeking and monitoring the company's bankruptcy proceedings.

Shapleigh is asking Texas Commission for Environmental Quality officials for its Asarco records as he tries to ensure the commission is protecting taxpayers. He is leery of initial government reports that say it will cost $52 million to clean up the Asarco site in El Paso.

"Our job now is to guarantee cleanup of on-site and off-site lead and arsenic," Shapleigh said. "The TCEQ's claim in Asarco's bankruptcy court will not nearly cover our cleanup costs."

The money to clean Asarco's operational site in El Paso is supposed to come from the company's trust fund that is currently being bantered about in bankruptcy court. Asarco filed for bankruptcy in 2005 in Corpus Christi. The case is pending.

As part of the bankruptcy, TCEQ is negotiating a settlement with EPA, the Department of Justice, and Asarco for cleanup money. TCEQ is asking for $52 million for on-site cleanup to be put into a custodial fund.

"The TCEQ is confident that $52 million will be sufficient to address the site in light of current site conditions and waste characterization," a statement from the agency states. "However, in the event that the $52 million is insufficient for site closure, the TCEQ would pursue other options for funding, including Superfund money if appropriate. At this point, the site is not a Superfund site."

Thomas L. Aldrich, Asarco's vice president of environmental affairs, said, "Asarco is working with the state of Texas to fund a custodial trust for the demolition of the plant and remediation of the site. Any custodial trust must be approved by the bankruptcy court that is overseeing Asarco's reorganization effort. We will not comment further on any specific details that are part of the bankruptcy process."

Shapleigh is pushing for $250 million for on-site costs. That figure, he said, was given to him in a conversation with EPA officials and it falls more in line with the cost of what happened in Omaha and Tacoma.

- The Tacoma Asarco site consisted of 97 acres and cost $100 million to clean.

- The Omaha site consisted of 23 acres and cost $150 million to clean.

The El Paso operational site for Asarco has more than 100 acres. That figure does not include the other 400 acres that Asarco owns near Interstate 10 and the near the University of Texas at El Paso. Shapleigh has been writing letters to the TCEQ asking them to re- evaluate the cleanup costs.

TCEQ officials said last week they currently do not have any plans to re-evaluate the costs.

El Paso Mayor John Cook said the city hired a private company to give an estimate on cleaning up the site.

"The company said $52 million is a reasonable amount," Cook said. "The strategy is to incapsulate the site."

Completely remediating, which means contaminated soil is taken out and replaced, would cost more but that is not currently in the plans.

The other concern that Shapleigh has is that the EPA did not test enough of the surrounding homes for lead contamination. In El Paso, about 3,800 homes were tested for lead. Of those, about 1,100 were cleaned and most of the homes were within a two-mile radius from Asarco.

"EPA never tested out to see how far the contamination went," Shapleigh said.

In Tacoma, 3,717 homes were tested and in Omaha, 32,669 homes were tested.

In April 2003, the EPA placed Omaha on the National Priority List for Superfund cleanup. The Omaha site is the largest residential site in the country and cleanup of Omaha's lead contaminated yards could cost $150 million.

South-West city Rep. Beto O'Rourke, whose district encompasses the neighborhoods around Asarco that have been tested and cleaned by the EPA, said that the issue of lead testing and contamination no longer comes up.

"That's not to say there isn't a problem, it just isn't being talked about," he said. "If it turns out that there are homes out there still contaminated, I would push very hard to get them cleaned up."

According to the TCEQ, cleaning up the Asarco site will cost $52 million. Here is the breakdown:

Demolition of buildings: $9 million
Groundwater treatment, containment: $22 million
New asphalt paving: $9.8 million
Engineering/design: $5.8 million
Long term monitoring: $3.2 million
Other costs: $2 million
Total: $52 million

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