Clearing the Air: A look back on ASARCO on 20th Anniversary of closing

El Paso News

It once stood as one of the most iconic landmarks in El Paso. Between the early 1890s to 2013, the ASARCO towers stood tall as a landmark in our city, after they came tumbling down in dramatic fashion in 2013, they exist only in the memories of those who lived in their shadows and worked within their confines.  

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the closure of the American Smelting and Refining Company. As part of El Paso’s rich history, KTSM decided to look back at ASARCO’s legacy. 

The copper stack was once considered the third highest smoke stack in the US, standing 828 feet tall. It was built in 1966 at a cost of $1.29M dollars. The second chimney was the lead stack which stood about 610 feet and cost $174,359 to construct. A third, much smaller, but older 300-foot chimney was the zinc stack which was built in 1917 for $18,522. 

During its 100 years of operation in El Paso, ASARCO’s three stacks smelted lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium and copper.   

Those smokestacks were taken down in half a minute and took years to build and grow, not only here in El Paso, but internationally.  

In 1887, Robert Safford Towne established the El Paso Smelter with backing from the Kansas City Consolidated Smelting and Refining Company on 1,560 acres of land sandwiched between what is currently UTEP and the banks of the Rio Grande river.  

In 1899, mining claims in Colorado, Montana, and Texas were consolidated to become the American Smelting and Refining Company, the birth of a company that over time would grow to be known worldwide, predominately in the U.S., Mexico, and Peru. 

It wasn’t until 1910 that ASARCO’s history would begin in El Paso with the construction of the copper smelter on the site. 

In 1999, as the ASARCO company celebrated a century of operations while in El Paso, the copper smelter suspended its operations. The closure of the smelter forced the layoffs of hundreds, many of whom were second or third generation employees at the smelter. 

Synonymous with the word ASARCO is Smeltertown. Just as it sounds, it was the name of the town within the grounds of El Paso’s smelting company.  

Near the banks of the Rio Grande and in the shadow of ASARCO smokestacks, families who worked at the smelter lived in homes, many of which were like apartments right next to each other. From credit unions to grocery stores, Smeltertown was where many families were born and raised.  

There were no paved streets, a lot of small alleys and all kids of stores workers would need to get by in a small community. About 400 homes existed in Smeltertown, but in 1972, high levels of lead in the blood of children living near the smelter forced many of the families to relocate to nearby Buena Vista neighborhood. 

Almost 50 years later, no remnants of Smeltertown can be found except a small row of graves atop a hill known as “Calavera Cemetery.” 

Although traces of contaminates have been found, there have yet to be any proven links from ASARCO’s pollutants to the illnesses that plague some of the company’s former employees.  

Their stories were documented by two local educators in the book ‘Copper Stain.’ A plea for help from several former workers launched Cynthia Ontiveros and Elaine Hampton into an avalanche of research for the book.  

“In the 1970s el Paso was the most heavily polluted city in the nation, it had some of the highest levels of air pollutants,” Hampton said.  

As part of their research, the authors wondered why so many would put their lives at risk for a job.  

“Growing up without a college education, men could find a trade and get paid very well and so for many years they smelted copper,” Ontiveros explained. 

 As part of their research, the pair learned how common it was for entities like ASARCO to go into places that are low socio-economic communities.  

“ASARCO wasn’t particularly unique, our nation as an industrial nation gave all benefits to industry so they can do anything they wanted to as long as they produced the metals we demanded,” said Hampton. 

The booming industry took years to regulate.  

“It’s very difficult to prove that one kind of pollutant will cause one type of disease because every person is different and every pollution level is different,” Hampton said. 

Many of the men who worked inside the walls of ASARCO shared their experiences with the authors for their book. One of them, Daniel Arrellano recalls how he believed his father had sold him to the devil, recalling the amount of fire that surrounded him on his first day at work in 1974. 

After 24 years in the smelter, Arrellano said the work never got easier or safer.  

“Where the converters were in the building it was one of the processes of the copper it blew up the number one converter and the guy was on the second floor. We had to take him down and take him to the clinic, he was injured pretty bad,” Arrellano reminisced.  

By 1997 Arrellano began showing signs of a blood disorder. The illness began with dozens of small tumors sprouting around his arms that can still be seen on his body more than 20 years later. 

“A lot of the workers wanted their jobs back and I was fighting to not reopen the plant because of hazardous waste they had gone through without letting us know. From the military, NASA, Dupont, a bunch of companies went in and burnt their waste through the El Paso smelter,” Arrellano said. 

A similar story echos through the walls of Carlos Rodriguez’s east side home. He worked for 30 years at ASARCO. 

“I went into production, heavy labor, industrial labor, “Como decian los señores, hombres de acero,” Rodriguez recalled. 

Men of Steel, they were called. 

“One death is too many and, in this case, with the chemical exposures there are several deaths. There are more deaths under toxic chemicals than there were accidents,” Rodriguez said. 

Years after ASARCO’s flames were extinguished, Rodriguez said he developed health complications. The medications which cause severe bruising. The bruises serve as a daily reminder of the toxins trapped in his body and as a reminder of why they keep fighting.  

The health studies that came back positive for lead in the 1970s stained ASARCO’s reputation to this day, but there remains a group still loyal to ASARCO despite the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Each month, a large group of former ASARCO employees gather at a Lower Valley restaurant to reminisce and reflect on their years at the smelter.  

Ranging from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, these men seem to remember their exact start date at the smelter as if it were their birthday. The group of former smelter workers still believe their lives would have been much different if ASARCO still existed.  

“I have nothing to say about ASARCO except grateful for giving me the opportunity to work there,” Jaime Archulteta said. 

For all of their dedication to the company, the employees were recognized and rewarded. They were greeted with burritos in the morning, rewards for their loyalty and the ability to move up into management positions.  

“When I started it was about $80 a week and being a supervisor, it went up. If it was overtime it went up to $1,000, $700, $800,” Ernest Robles recalled. 

That was a lot of money in those days for men who did not have a college education. So, when an environmental scandal began encircling ASARCO some employees stood up for the company and remained loyal until the last flame burned out.  

In April 2013, the smokestacks at ASARCO came tumbling down. Along with it, went years of the work employees put into the plant. It also left 450 acres of contaminated soil and water.  

As per the TCEQ, under ASARCO’s bankruptcy settlement, the smelter was placed under an environmental custodial trust managed by Project Navigator LTD. They were tasked with the environmental remediation of the land. The custodial trustee, Roberto Puga says the project is now 95% complete.  

Puga also says that the land is currently in the process of being sold to UTEP. A spokesperson for the University tells KTSM that no deal has been finalized yet.   

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