Helter Smelter

Protesters rally at ASARCO in El Paso, Sept. 2007—photo by Robert Ardovino, gettheleadout.net

espite the opposition of community organizations, city officials, residents, and neighboring New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) granted an air permit that allows the copper smelting company ASARCO to resume operations in El Paso, Texas. The controversial unanimous vote took place in the state’s capital of Austin on February 13 and was the latest episode in a six-year struggle over the company’s fate. The owners of the copper smelter, which has been a fixture in the border town of El Paso since the 19th century, claimed that approval of the air permit should allay community fears of air pollution, while resumption of operations, which have been largely closed since 1999, would bring good paying jobs and boost the local economy. 

Those opposed to the re-opening of the smelter point to ASARCO’s long and sordid history of pollution as well as the bankrupt company’s outstanding and unsettled environmental liability claims. Backed by a University of Texas at El Paso study, they also rebuffed ASARCO’s assertion of job creation, stating that, to  the contrary, resuming operations would have a negative net impact on El Paso’s economy. 

The decision by Texas regulators, though pivotal, is not likely to settle the dispute once and for all. City officials have filed a petition asking TCEQ to revoke the air permit. There’s even a dispute within ASARCO as the company, after being sold to Grupo Mexico in 1999, was split into multiple subsidiaries, one of which has publicly stated that should it assume managerial authority it would seek to keep the copper smelter shut down. 

According to local historian Fred Morales, Smeltertown was established over 120 years ago by Mexicans who migrated there. The community quickly defined itself along race and class lines. Anglo employees of higher positions enjoyed better living conditions including proper sewage and electricity while the Mexican laborers lived in unequal and frequently unsanitary conditions. When the American Smelting and Refining Company, as ASARCO was originally known, established control of the smelter in 1899, the plant was remodeled and opened with nearly 1,000 laborers. The task of upgrading the squalid conditions fell to the city of El Paso which, at the turn of the 20th century, constructed water pipelines to the few homes with compatible plumbing. 

If the living conditions in Smelter- town were deplorable, so too were the working conditions at ASARCO. The Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa was working at the plant in 1913 when Mexican workers struck for increased wages and shorter working days. The smelter was guarded at the time by the notorious Texas Rangers as violence broke out between picketers and scabs. 

As the workers voiced their demands from below, the city of El Paso warned ASARCO about smoke emissions polluting the horizons above. Emboldened by record profits in the year 1949, the copper smelter constructed the world’s tallest smokestack, towering 610 feet tall. The smokestack served the lead smelting department of the plant and the company claimed that it would improve the air quality in and around the city. Nevertheless, in 1951 residents complained about the thick smog and respiratory problems. After having been outdone by two previous companies, ASARCO once more sought and attained the distinction of having the world’s tallest smokestack in 1966. Again, as in the previous occasion, the company’s record holding smokestack was touted to bring improvements to the level of pollutants. However, four years after its construction, a class action suit seeking billions in damages was filed against the company for contaminating the environment and being a public nuisance.

ASARCO continued to face environmental scrutiny. In 1972 the focus turned from what was being emitted into the sky to what was seeping into the soil. El Paso County Health District tests showed high levels of lead in the blood of a significant portion of children residing in Smeltertown. The results of the tests also found dangerous levels of lead in the dirt streets and yards in the surrounding areas. With such damning revelations, ASARCO was ordered to pay settlements to afflicted families, cover their medical costs, and improve pollution control. For its part, the city of El Paso wanted the residents of Smeltertown to be moved from the area as a result of the test’s findings. Neighborhood committees that were formed did not want residents to leave their homes and the sense of community they had cultivated. Though distrustful of the city’s reports of lead contamination, many left Smeltertown, albeit begrudgingly. By 1973, ASARCO purchased the land that was once a historic community and leveled its lead-laden top soil. 

Resisting ASARCO Today 

For many in El Paso, giving ASARCO yet another chance is a mistake. Daniel Arellano, a third generation laborer at ASARCO, worked at the plant for 24 years before being laid off when operations ceased in 1999. Just before that, he had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia, which he blames on the smelter. He explained, "Through a Freedom of Information Act request we found out that ASARCO was running hazardous waste through the plant. That’s something we never agreed on as employees. A lot of us are sick, myself included, as I have a blood disorder because of it." 

Arellano got involved in the El Paso chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) years after losing his job and being bedridden with the pain caused by his medical condition. This neighborhood organization began educating the public about ASARCO through its Sunset Heights chapter. The issue became citywide as news of the smelter’s desire to re-open surfaced. 

Other grassroots organizations in the community have been fighting alongside ACORN-El Paso to prevent the smelter from re-opening. The Get the Lead Out Coalition has been instrumental in bringing to light the previously confidential illegal incineration of waste at the plant, which resulted in a $20 million clean-up and penalty for ASARCO. The coalition cited that incident along with many others as reason enough to deny the company an air permit when members descended on the TCEQ hearings in Austin in February. One activist with the group, Debbie Kelly, spoke of how numerous city officials and even El Paso Congressperson Silvestre Reyes had pledged support to their efforts. Get the Lead Out faced challenges at the top, however, as Kelly explained, "We do not have the support of the governor of Texas, Rick Perry. He is definitely pro-corporations and doesn’t care much about the environment nor do the commissioners he appointed to do his dirty work." 

Among youth, the campaigns against ASARCO have inspired new activism. A student organization was formed at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Priscilla Moreno, a sophomore and political science major, was motivated to start Students for Reform when she heard that the plant wanted to re-open. Moreno, who is the group’s president, considers issue especially critical to students. "ASARCO is actually less than one mile away from the campus. Even without the wind blowing, all the contamination from the smokestack would go directly to UTEP," she explained. Students for Reform quickly organized charter buses for students to protest at the hearings. 

None of the members of the those opposed to ASARCO seemed deflated by TCEQ’s February decision to grant ASARCO an air permit to resume operations. Kelly says her group will carry on. "We’re not going to give up hope. We are going to keep fighting. We are not just going to sit back and do nothing. We will continue to do everything we can to keep it from re-opening." Towards that end, Students for Reform will try new strategies: "Local elections are coming up fairly soon here. What we want to do is find out where the politicians stand on ASARCO," Moreno said. "From that we will then educate the public. That’s one way we will continue, through the political track of legislation and voting."

ASARCO’s many offenses mean other fronts exist in the struggle to hold the company accountable. "The only way we can get this corporation out is to send their corporate leaders to jail," Arellano says. "That’s our next step. As employees ASARCO doesn’t want to deal with us. They don’t want to cover our medical bills. The only step left for us is to put criminal charges not only on them, but also on TCEQ for allowing them to pass these hazardous materials through." Other ex-ASARCO employees will be joining Arellano in seeking accountability from their former employer for the physical harm caused to them. "My dad and my grandfather didn’t have the education to say anything," Arellano recounts, "but I’m going to take this all the way down to my death." 

Despite having demonstrated a reluctance to abide by environmental regulatory standards without a fight, ASARCO, in the lead up to its recent securing of an air permit, has tried to publicly re-invent itself. The company was the title sponsor for the city of El Paso’s first Go Green Environmental and Recycling Expo late last year. Protesters with ACORN-El Paso and Students for Reform picketed outside the convention center, calling the move a cynical public relations ploy. Upon learning of ASARCO’s sponsorship, El Paso’s city officials withdrew from participating in the expo. 

In another example, Robert Litle, the plant manager for the El Paso smelter, accused ACORN of hyping fears and manipulating facts. Litle claimed scientific data showed that lead emissions from ASARCO’s resumed operations would not negatively affect the health of people in the plant’s vicinity. In its criticism, ACORN noted that the smelter’s figures were based on faulty averages and lacked a proper margin of safety—so compliance with the EPA’s new lead standard would not be possible. 

TCEQ’s decision to grant ASARCO an air permit has now cleared the way for the smelter to emit nearly eight thousand tons of pollutants per year. Perhaps the most telling indicator as to whether or not ASARCO is as green as its public relations sponsorship would like people to believe was the company’s decision to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy protections in 2005. With billions of dollars in yet to be settled environmental lawsuits, the company hopes the move will shed them of their liabilities and shift the debt to taxpayers. Now that’s downright dirty.  


Gabriel San Roman is the co-producer of "Uprising Radio" on KPFK Los Angeles. He is also the grandson of the late Ramon and Consuelo Alvarez who once lived and owned a grocery store in "La Esmelda."