Giant border smokestack set for demoltion

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by ANGELA KOCHERGA / KVUE News

Bio | Email | Follow: @AKochergaBorder

kvue.com

Posted on April 12, 2013 at 10:59 PM

Updated Friday, Apr 12 at 11:01 PM

EL PASO -- What was once the tallest smokestack in the U.S. becomes rubble in less than a minute.

“I hate to see it go. I really do. It’s a landmark,” said Christi Darling, 71, as she used a disposable camera to take a photo.

The El Paso native was one of several people who stopped near the smokestack to get a final snapshot.

Just after dawn, demolition crews will use 300 pounds of dynamite to bring down the smokestack and a smaller companion that tower over the Rio Grande.

Residents have mixed emotions about the demolition. The smelter created hundreds of jobs but also polluted both sides of the border before it shut down in 1999.

"My grandfather worked at Asarco ‘til the day he died. He died in an industrial accident at Asarco," said James Johnson who lives near the smelter.

Johnson's grandfather Adolfo Soto died on the job in 1958.

The American Refining and Smelter Company set up shop in El Paso in 1887. It shut down in 1999. At it’s peak the smelter employed hundreds of people and was a pillar of the local economy.

One historian says Pancho Villa worked there briefly.

“He got enough money to go start his revolution,” said Johnson.

But along with the lore, there’s a toxic legacy. Johnson was among hundreds of children tested for lead contamination in the early 1970s. He was fine. 

“I’ve had neighbors one 98 and 102 years old, lived their whole lives under the stacks,” said Johnson.

But a landmark study by the Centers for Disease Control found more than half of the children living within a four-mile radius of smelter had levels of lead in the their blood four times higher than the accepted level. Dangerous levels of lead can cause developmental disorders in children.

In 1970, the City of El Paso and state of Texas sued the smelter and the environmental problems dragged on for years. The EPA denied Asarco's request to reopen the plant one last time in 2010.

Some worried demolishing the smokestack might release dangerous contamination into the Rio Grande below. However, the EPA gave the green light to bring the 828 foot smokestack down after reviewing the demolition plan.

Despite the environmental problems, people who live in small neighborhood in the shadow of Asarco say they’ll miss the towering smokestack.

 

“My mom said all the spirits are going to get up tomorrow and hold it up, everybody that died there," Johnson said.

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