Environmental Justice in El Paso

ASARCOFor more than 100 years the ASARCO plant has been a permanent fixture in the El Paso skyline. After shutting its doors in 1999, the plant made efforts to re-open in 2002. But the local community was opposed to the idea, citing environmental concerns. Through a combination of political advocacy, grassroots organizing, and legal maneuvering, environmental activists fought the re-opening every step of the way. In early February they won their battle when the city of El Paso learned that ASARCO was abandoning its efforts to restart operations at the facility.

The smokestacks have been apart of the El Paso skyline since 1887 when ASARCO first opened its copper smelter along the Texas-Mexico border. For decades the facility supplied the local community with jobs and economic support. But the plant also pumped an overwhelming amount of pollution into the west Texas air and land.

After tough economic times in 1999, the company was forced to shut down the plant. In 2002 ASARCO began efforts to re-open the facility with the promise of clean air and hundreds of jobs to help the El Paso economy. The local community was split into two factions on the issue and the resulting debate made the factory one of the most controversial issues in the city’s history.

ASARCO’s attempt to re-open its plant was met with a huge amount of opposition from local governments, nonprofit organizations, and advocacy groups. The groups argued that ASARCO was responsible for a large amount of pollution in the El Paso area. The plant’s property was already in need of a cleanup in order to remove pollutants. Re-opening the facility would only increase the amount of pollution in El Paso and surrounding communities.

In March 2002 ASARCO applied to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to renew its air quality permit for the El Paso facility. In their petition for their permit renewal, ASARCO argued that the plant was never closed, but only temporarily inactive. As a result, they didn’t need to apply for a new permit or be held to higher environmental standards. Their position angered environmentalists and legal experts who felt that the company was using tricky maneuvering to avoid environmental laws. In February 2008, after hearings and studies that produced differing opinions on the matter, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality authorized ASARCO’s permit renewal.

That’s where Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) entered the story.

Representing Sunset Heights ACORN, an El Paso chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, TRLA sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for granting ASARCO’s application to renew its air quality permit.  In the lawsuit, TRLA argued that the permit should have been denied and asked a Travis county court to reverse the decision.

ASARCO2“The new contamination will add to a history of lead and arsenic contamination that resulted from the over 112 years of operation.” – Texas RioGrande Legal Aid

“They should not have been granted this application,” said TRLA attorney Enrique Valdivia. “That plant had been shut down and it should not have been allowed to avoid new environmental standards by getting a renewal.”

In the lawsuit TRLA also argued that the environmental impacts of re-opening the plant would be devastating.  According to the TRLA, “The new contamination will add to a history of lead and arsenic contamination that resulted from the over 112 years of operation.”

In addition to the legal battle, TRLA law clerks and attorneys developed outreach materials to distribute to the El Paso community on avoiding the hazards of pollution. After all, if the plant was allowed to re-open, it was important that the local community knew how to safeguard their health and safety.

But all the legal battles and controversy seemed to come to an end in early February 2009 when, to the surprise of many, ASARCO publicly announced that they would not be re-opening their El Paso facility.

Blaming the decision on the current state of the economy,ASARCO argued that it would not be economically feasible to re-open the facility. But opponents to the plant suspect other reasons behind ASARCO’s surprising decision.

The day that ASARCO announced its decision it was revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had sent the company a condemning letter stating that Texas erred in renewing the plant’s permit. The letter also contained a long list of problems with the plant, including that much of the equipment was unusable and in poor shape. To ASARCO’s opponents, the letter only added credibility to the arguments they have been making for almost seven years.

While opponents of the reopening are thrilled with the decision, they warn that there is still much work to be done.  The facility property needs to be repaired and pollutants must be removed before it truly can be an environmental victory.

Many aspects of the plant’s future remain unclear. But two things are known – the plant will not be re-opening and the property will be cleaned up to meet environmental standards. Current estimates for the cleanup range from $50 to $250 million dollars.

Added TRLA attorney Veronica Carbajal, “Finding justice in this case was a collaborative effort among the entire El Paso community. By fighting this battle on several fronts, El Paso was able to have its voice heard and make sure that the laws protecting our environment were followed.  The reward couldn’t be greater.”

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