Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Smokestack Injustice? Toxic Texas Smelter May Reopen

The big smokestack's red lights that flash through the night send the unmistakable message that the mothballed smelter is not dead yet. The old American Smelting and Refining Company (Asarco) copper smelter in El Paso, Texas, may have temporarily stopped spewing toxins, but it still unsettles the Paso del Norte borderlands.

Government agencies and environmental groups have blamed the 111-year- old smelter for severe air, soil and groundwater contamination. Nonetheless, on February 13, 2008 the plant was given a new lease on life when the three members of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) voted unanimously to grant Asarco a five-year air quality permit. The vote was a stinging rebuke to hundreds of border residents who had traveled to the state capital of Austin to convince TCEQ to finally shut it down.

The air permit battle is just the latest chapter in the long, controversial history of the Asarco smelter, which is currently owned by a Mexican company. Operating under a series of previous owners the plant processed lead, zinc, silver and copper between 1887 and 1999.

Built close to the banks of the Rio Grande, the smelter sits directly across from working-class neighborhoods and schools in Ciudad Juarez and less than two miles from the low-income, Latino community of Sunland Park, New Mexico. Asarco is also downhill from the University of Texas at El Paso and surrounding middle-class neighborhoods.

The dispute centers around the common, if oversimplified, battle of jobs versus environment. About 100 supporters of reopening the plant turned out for the February 13 meeting wearing blue “Let's Get to Work” T-shirts. Many were former Asarco workers.

Opponents of the smelter included activists from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Sierra Club, Sunland Park Grassroots Environmental Group and Ciudad Juarez's Citizens Organized for Integral Community Development. After the TCEQ's decision was announced, protesters rallied outside the agency's Austin offices.

“I knew that they'd rule against us,” said Bill Addington, a member of the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club. A long-time opponent of the reopening, he predicted a protracted struggle. “It took us eight years to stop Sierra Blanca,” he said, referring to a proposed nuclear dump.

Nonetheless, public pressure had some effect. The agency wound up granting Asarco a permit for five years instead of the normal 10-year span, and ordered the installation of four air pollution monitors near the plant..


[Source: CorpWatch - Posted by