History bites the dust with demolition of ASARCO Smokestacks
By Joe Olvera ©, 2013
ANALYSIS: They once were the tallest smokestacks in the world. As part of the American Smelting and Refining Company, the smokestacks have stood for almost 50 years, standing vigil over the city and making people remark over its 828 foot tall stack which, in January 30, 1967, became taller than any other stack in the world. Alas, that distinction gave way to taller stacks, some of which are still in use. For example, the GRES-2 Power Station, in Ekibastusz, Kazakhstan towers 1377 feet into the air, making it the tallest in the world. The El Paso ASARCO smokestacks now only rank number 5, and if things go according to plan, they will drop down to zero in terms of height.
Once upon a time, ASARCO was a power-base, smelting and refining copper from the Phelps Dodge Refinery Company and other smelters to produce a business that hired thousands of workers from El Paso and from Juarez. From the little village of Buena Vista to what later became known as Smeltertown, the smokestacks were both a pride of accomplishment for the City of El Paso, and a source for contamination which spewed dangerous gasses and other poisons over the small communities that dotted the area. But, at that time, there was no danger, or so it seemed, and people went about their business working hard and earning a good salary to support their families.
In the beginning, when El Paso citizens heard that the towers might come down, they united against such an affront. At first, they complained that the stacks should not be demolished because they were a part of El Paso’s history. They were a source of pride, something which El Paso lacked because there was nothing to make the city stand out from other communities, ah, but the stacks were the tallest in the world, weren’t they? Guys who were in the military would point out with pride that El Paso did lay claim to having the tallest stacks at that time. Perhaps it was a small claim to fame, but, there it was. Like silent sentinels, they have stood, firm and steady, lording it over the landscape.
But, then came the bad news. The stacks, it was decided contained pollutants and other dangerous chemicals that were released when they were in use. Failing to halt the proposed demolition, despite strong efforts to change the minds of the Environmental Protection Agency so that they would allow the stacks to remain, opponents of the demolition are attempting a different scenario. Some ideas floated forth that would have turned the smelter into a museum of sorts, or some other public gathering place where history could continually remind El Pasoans of what once had been. But, that wasn’t about to happen. Demolition was slated for April 13, 2013.
Opponents of the knockdown, however, are not giving up. Now they want the powers that be, to allow a “time-out” on the demolition because they want a “thorough environmental assessment” to take place to determine what would happen to the water, air monitoring, soil sampling, plus what would happen due to a lack of transparency and a lack of community involvement and outreach. But, because El Paso is in a demolition mood – attempting to also knock down the Lincoln Rec Center in Central El Paso, knocking down City Hall and knocking down the Insights Museum, knocking down the two stacks is nothing short of a no-brainer. So, is El Paso tearing down the old to replace it with the new? But, what new thing will replace the smokestacks? With arsenic and lead remaining behind due to the smokestacks, what can replace them? Commercial development does not seem to be a viable alternative because medical reports of respiratory difficulties have arisen which have not been addressed.
Mayoral candidate Hector Lopez proposes that the stacks not be demolished in order to build a health and environmental research center which can “turn this industrial wasteland” into a research hub that provides scientific solutions and high profile research. “Fundamentally, I believe that this is a prime opportunity for us to create a health and environmental research center on the U.S.-Mexico border that will address the real legacy of ASARCO,” Lopez writes as part of his platform. “We already know of the poisoning of our land, water, air, residents and workers. Despite the political boundaries that divide our individual states, it is our responsibility to our regional community and future generations to address the issue now.”