Polluting El Paso Smelter to Close for Good
On February 3, Sierra Club and community activists on both sides of the border celebrated when Arizona-based ASARCO announced that it will permanently close and demolish its El Paso copper smelter, which has been shuttered since 1999. The municipal governments of El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, have long opposed restarting the smelter, and the City of El Paso sued to permanently shut it down.
ASARCO, now in bankruptcy, cited "extreme economic conditions worldwide" in its decision. But the same day as the company made its announcement, the EPA sent a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, stating that crucial equipment was in need of repair and the smelter might not be able to comply with federal air quality standards if it reopened as is. The Commission last year granted ASARCO an operating permit for the El Paso plant.
"ASARCO says they are closing because of economic reasons, but this is far from the truth," asserts Sierra Club Environmental Justice organizer Mariana Chew, the Club's point person in the smelter fight. "The community pushed the federal government to act to close the smelter, and it's clear that ASARCO did not meet the criteria for an air permit renewal."
That's Chew speaking, above, at a 2007 rally at the Capitol in Austin, with daughter Thelma at her side. Behind her are Mexican Federal Senator Jeffrey Jones, City of El Paso Representative Alex Lozano, Texas State Senator Eliot Shapleigh, El Paso Mayor John Cook, and City of El Paso Representative Beto O'Rourke.
ASARCO, which has a long history of permit violations, has been trying to reopen the smelter since 2002, but legal challenges and grassroots opposition from the Sierra Club and other groups succeeded in keeping the plant closed. In 2007, the Club helped turn out more than 1,000 residents from El Paso and Juarez for a "Faces Against ASARCO" rally, pictured at top of post. Chew was the main organizer of the rally.
After ASARCO was granted their operating permit last year from the State of Texas, the Sierra Club took the issue to the federal and international level, prompting the City of Juarez, the State of Chihuahua, and the Mexican federal government to write petitions, pass resolutions, and stage rallies and media events like "Faces Against ASARCO" to demand U.S. government action.
"We have been the only ones dealing with the Mexican government," says Chew, who is part of a bi-national committee that signed a resolution on ASARCO in 2008 based on the La Paz Agreement to protect, conserve, and improve the environment of the Mexico/U.S. border region.
Chew says local Sierra Club activists Taylor Moore, Heather McMurray, Bill Addington, and Debbie Kelly were invaluable in helping with research, hazardous waste issues, community organization, unveiling of government corruption, and providing the necessary tools for the bi-national community to decide what was best for them.
"Now the Sierra Club will keep fighting for what the community needs: full cleanup and remediation and justice for those injured by the illegal burning of hazardous wastes at ASARCO that EPA has documented," Chew says.
ASARCO and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality say that cleaning up the site will cost $50 million. But some feel the cost could be five time that much, and local taxpayers worry that they may be stuck footing the rest of the bill.
With characteristic modesty, Chew deflects the credit: "It was because of [fellow Sierra Club organizers] Bob Bingaman, Steve Thomas, Steve Mills, Oliver Bernstein, Jennifer Dominguez, Lawson LeGate, Rob Smith, Joni Bosh, Jeff Gantman, Robin Tsosie, Leslie Fields, "and especially my Environmental Justice and southwest region 'family' that Sierra Club got this polluter down. My community recognizes your support and thanks you for all you do for us."