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Rail yard move to Asarco site proposed
January 19, 2010

So what should El Paso do with Asarco?

Among the many proposed uses for hundreds of acres that make up the now-shuttered facility is one that would move a rail yard from Downtown to the smelter site on El Paso’s Westside.

Written by Sito Negron, El Paso Inc.


EL PASO-So what should El Paso do with Asarco?

Among the many proposed uses for hundreds of acres that make up the now-shuttered facility is one that would move a rail yard from Downtown to the smelter site on El Paso’s Westside.

Officials with BNSF Railway have met at least twice with city and state officials, and last week met with the consultant who will recommend the site’s future.

The BNSF yard in El Paso is located along Santa Fe Street, near the U.S.-Mexico border.

“At this point, everything is a possibility,” said Mayor John Cook about the proposal. “I don’t think we’ve had an opportunity to work real closely with our Economic Development Department that tried to bring potential developers in four years ago.”

A BNSF spokesman declined comment, other than to confirm that meetings have been held about relocating the yard. At the same time, a key member of El Paso’s transportation leadership said it’s not likely to happen, because of technical issues and long-term environmental liability.

The idea is one of several that’s emerged as the trustee for the site, Roberto Puga of California, gets to work.

In December, Asarco concluded a massive bankruptcy case by settling its liabilities for $1.8 billion nationally; in El Paso, the agreement provided $52 million for cleanup of the more than 100-year-old smelter site.

Once the site is cleaned to an “industrial standard” – the top layers of dirt scraped and capped with asphalt, buildings demolished and a bubble of toxic water underneath the site drained – the land can be sold for reuse.

Because of its position, a sort of Gibraltar overlooking the Pass of the North where the Rio Grande cuts through the Rockies and heads east to the Gulf, the land could be very valuable.

Railroads enjoy a year-round passage, 124,000 vehicles a day flow through on Interstate 10, its neighbors are the university and the Rio Grande, and it is within sight of Downtown El Paso. But the issues of cleanup and future liability loom large.

‘Not going to happen’
Joe Faust, BNSF’s regional director of communications, said the meeting Thursday was “very preliminary.”

“It is true we were there and we were invited by Ted Houghton from TxDOT and the mayor’s office. This was designed to be a very preliminary discussion about the options regarding that property,” Faust said. “At this point, it’s so preliminary there are no imminent changes.”

Houghton, an El Pasoan who serves on the Texas Transportation Commission that oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, said the proposal to move the tracks was derailed by liability concerns.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said.

He said work to smooth the grade differential from BNSF rail lines to the site is daunting enough. But the real deal-killer is that, “After the trustee does the work, BNSF is on the hook for maintaining the cap they put on it.”

“I’ve learned a hell of a lot about this thing in the last 60 days, more than I care to know,” Houghton said. “But it’s been pretty clear to me the limitations on the land, after they try to get it to what they call industrial grade.”

Houghton said that El Pasoans will soon face a stark reality. The cost to clean the site so it can be built upon – digging foundations, adding water and sewer and other site preparation – would be more like $560 million, he said.

Houghton said that figure came from a source with the Texas Council on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ.

“I guess the point is, be careful what you ask for,” he said, adding that anything done with the site will have to be accomplished in small steps.

“It’s not going to be one big fix because no one has the money to do it,” he said. “The first thing is, level those assets so that eyesore goes away.”

City Rep. Steve Ortega, who met with BNSF and others regarding the Asarco site, said there is no front-running proposal.

“The BNSF idea is one of many and I don’t think at this point the city is wedded to any particular idea,” he said.

Ortega said forums will be held so that members of the community can inject their perspective into what should happen with that property. And everyone has their own idea, he said.

“At the end, what we owe the community is a master-planned concept for that property that’s feasible and reflective of the community values,” Ortega said.

Cook said that it’s a long-term project, ranking it with the city’s top initiatives – Medical Center of the Americas, Downtown revitalization, Fort Bliss growth and building transportation infrastructure.

“I would say it’s in the top five,” he said. “We’re probably going to spend a good nine months to a year working on the plan.”

On the water front
One idea that seems to have taken hold is preserving the large, 800-foot stack. Both Cook and Puga said that’s likely to happen.

“There is some cultural identification with that large man-made object,” Puga said, adding that people are either ambivalent about it staying, or they have a positive reaction.

“They see it as a reminder or a beacon from the past and into the future,” Puga said. “As of right now, I don’t have any concrete plans to knock the stack down.”

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh said the site’s design elements are epic. There is riverfront on the Rio Grande, UTEP on the other side of the freeway, rail access, the border with Mexico: “Everything has to go through there – light rail, broadband, travelers.”

Shapleigh agrees with others who say that the process to determine the site’s future must take place in public meetings and with vigorous debate.

Under the site is a bubble of contaminated water that has reached the Rio Grande, according to TCEQ.

“That is a very major concern that the bubble will burst, so to speak,” Cook said. “The last thing we want is for that thing to explode before we’re finished doing all these other things.”

Puga, the Asarco trustee, said he isn’t sure about the water contamination.

“I think that’s a data gap we'll have to fill as we go forward,” Puga said.

Then there’s the issue of stormwater.

“There’s a lot of stormwater that flows through here and we have to find a way to manage the water better,” he said.

“As this area is more developed, with development comes more asphalt, so water that previously soaked into the ground is now funneled.”

The volume of the water will exceed the capacity of culverts running beneath the interstate and Paisano Drive, Puga said.

“So what happens during big rain events is you get ponding of stormwater here, and that’s undesirable. Because if the water stands there, some of it starts to percolate into the subsurface and that’s something we want to address,” Puga said.

City Rep. Beto O’Rourke said figuring out that aspect of the site is critical.

“I think much more work needs to be done to make sure that we are going to do everything in our power to guarantee the quality of our drinking water for the next 100-plus years,” he said.

While the water has reached the Rio Grande, where El Paso gets more than half its drinking water, officials with the El Paso Water Utilities note that the water they send through their system after treatment meets federal safety standards.

Bill Addington, a member of the Get the Lead Out Coalition, which fought Asarco’s air permit renewal for years, as well as a member of the Sierra Club executive committee in El Paso, said that the extent of contamination still is unknown, and that ought to be a top priority.

“We believe they’re putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “It’s like a feeding frenzy.”

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