Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997. Editor update: ASARCO was shut down in 1999 and the smokestacks demolished in 2013.
By Cindy White, Sarah Murga, and Jessica Rodriguez
In the 1970s, ASARCO, one of El Paso's largest employers, acquired the reputation for being one of El Paso's worst polluters. Sulfur dioxide emissions and suspended particulate matter or smog contaminated the air and poisoned the earth.
Today, ASARCO is a charter member of the Texas Clean Industries, a group devoted to lowering pollution. The company has worked for decades to lessen pollution produced by its operations and to improve the quality of the environment in El Paso.
ASARCO has been El Paso's largest industrial company since it was established in the 1800s. Robert Safford Towne, a young mining engineer, founded a small smelter when he visited Mexico in 1881 and realized that he could process ore in El Paso that was mined in the Sierra Mojada and Santa Eulalia districts of Chihuahua. In 1883, he built the Mexican Ore company, a facility for sampling and grading ore. The plant was ready for operation on August 29, 1887, and started operations with 250 employees.
Ten years later, 17 separate corporations merged and formed a partnership. The Mexican Ore Company was incorporated into the newly organized American Smelting And Refining Company known as ASARCO.
Image caption: ASARCO Refinery. Photo by Ray M. Pierce
In 1901, a fire destroyed a large portion of the plant, but the business reopened in 1902, even larger than before with an addition of seven lead furnaces. Copper smelting facilities were also added at this time, handling the increased copper output of the Southwest. By the 1940s, the refinery, with a 35,000 ton-per-month capacity, processed nearly thirty percent of the copper mined in the United States.
By 1971, ASARCO in El Paso had become the biggest custom smelter in the world and the largest producer of non-ferrous metals. By the mid 1970s, it was pumping $15 million yearly into local salaries, supporting nearly 1,000 employees and paying $13.2 million to local companies for supplies and services.
As much as ASARCO contributed to the local economy, it also contributed to a heavily polluted environment. No one could miss the great clouds of emissions and the noxious odors coming from the plant across from UTEP. According to historian Leon Metz in his book El Paso Chronicles, when ASARCO was built, the smelter was "several miles from the city, and no one suspected the fumes would eventually become a nuisance." Metal particulates and gas are highly visible, can remain suspended in the atmosphere for a considerable time and can be transported for long distances -- and they were.
During the first half of this century, ASARCO had invested millions of dollars in applied research and equipment to contain pollution, including the introduction of precipitator devices to capture dust particles, installation of "baghouses" to filter dust from the lead plant and the building in 1952 of a 612 foot smokestack to reduce ground level concentrations of sulfur dioxide. In 1967, ASARCO made history again, building the 828 foot stack that is still standing and was the largest of its kind at that time. However, citizens began to complain in the 1970s about the environmental problems to which ASARCO was contributing. Smoke, soot and sulfur dioxide were only three problems. Ground level leaks in the smelting process also left lead particles in the soil, and children living in a neighborhood known as Smeltertown located adjacent to the company were found to have exceptionally high levels of lead in their blood and were hospitalized. After several tests, the soil was found to contain one percent lead. The children were playing on contaminated dirt. The company supplied doctors, paid medical bills and collected the contaminated soil. Soon after, Smeltertown residents were relocated. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed to protect and improve the atmosphere for living beings. Among other regulations, the agency set federal standards for the amount of hazardous emissions that could be produced by industries. Improvements at ASARCO in the '70s were prompted by EPA regulations. Compliance was checked by agencies such as the Texas Air Control Board.
ASARCO cooperated in improving the plant in several ways. In December 1972, a new $18.5 million sulfuric acid plant was built to reduce the gas escaping from the smokestack. Instead of allowing the sulfur dioxide to escape, it was stored in four 3,500 ton tanks. In 1973, ASARCO added five new baghouses to filter out even more particles. But in May of 1975, a 41st District Court order evaluating the conditions of ASARCO found 33 violations of EPA regulations between the months of June and November. In 1976, ASARCO began an air pollution control program that would be completed in four phases by the end of August 1977.
Phase one enclosed the converter building with sheet metal to help ventilators pull the air into the bag house. Construction began on a flue support system which carried the gaseous emissions from the convertor building to the baghouse where the particulates were removed. This eliminated 95% of the sulfur dioxide emissions.
Phase two included the building of a storage facility for ore in order to prevent dust from being blown into the air by strong winds. Phase three consisted of the installation of an updraft lead sinter machine. This device would make the sulfur dioxide gas stronger so it could be changed into sulfuric acid. The construction of another sulfuric acid plant ushered in phase four.
The Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also battled with ASARCO in the past. In the late '70s, concern over the safety of the plant's workers became an issue. Some workers were found to have cadmium, lead and arsenic in their blood. These three elements were found to be related to lung, skin and prostate cancer as well as cell malfunction and sub-par mental activity. As a result, the company provided face masks, ear plugs and special clothing to protect workers. In May of 1982, a spray tower was erected that would wet particulates in the air from the lead sinter and make it easier to retrieve dust produced in the smelting process. In addition, the company possesses one of the most advanced water recirculation and recovery systems ever put into metallurgical sulfuric acid plants in the United States.
Today ASARCO is working on an $81 million project to replace 50-year-old equipment with new furnaces. With the new equipment, most of the remaining sulfur dioxide will be converted to sulfuric acid and sold to the mining industry, food producers and fertilizer makers. Emissions of sulfur dioxide will be slashed by 93%.
In May 1992, ASARCO was approved by the Texas Air Control Board for the modernizing project called CONTOP, Continuous Topfeed Oxygen Process. The system eliminates 90% of the emissions that are created. This system replaced the outdated copper smelting procedures. In August 1996, five heat-exchange units were installed to collect the heat in the gas and turn it into steam, which is reused at the plant for the production of electricity.
By the early 1990s, 525,000 tons of copper and 420,000 tons of lead were being processed per month, while the plant had local payrolls, purchases and taxes totaling $34 million dollars. But now it had something else to be proud of.
ASARCO is now the city's only member of the Texas Clean Air Industry. This is a group of 75 companies which have voluntarily promised to reduce air pollution by at least 50% by 1999. The El Paso plant must also get involved in committees to help with the environment. Tom Martin, environmental manager for ASARCO in El Paso, reminds the city of the company's efforts to protect the environment: "The facts speak for themselves. There's no denying we've had somewhat of a checkered past, but we're working real hard to overcome that."