By City Representative Beto O’Rourke
Some people question why the City of El Paso is so persistent and unwavering in its opposition to the renewal of the air quality permit for the Asarco copper smelter, but does not oppose other industrial facilities. This article further explains the City’s opposition to Asarco and addresses why Asarco is different than other industrial corporate citizens of El Paso.
The amount of lead and arsenic that Asarco will emit into the air of El Paso must be put into perspective. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires facilities to report the amount of certain toxic pollutants emitted into the environment on an annual basis.
Under EPA rules some companies report emissions of “lead” and others report emissions of “lead compounds.” Lead compounds include lead and the weight of other chemicals in the compound. For 2005, the most recent reporting year, EPA data indicate the highest level of lead emitted into the air in the United States was 4.3 tons by a plant located in Tazewell, Illinois. The highest level of lead emitted into the air by a Texas facility was 2.2 tons by a facility in Tyler. Currently the highest level of lead emitted into the air by any facility in El Paso County is 0.6 tons annually.
In stark contrast, Asarco’s permit would allow its copper smelter in El Paso to emit 4.7 tons of lead into the air annually. When considering facilities that report emissions of lead, El Paso would potentially have the distinction of being home to the facility with the highest level of lead emissions in the United States. Even when compared to facilities that report lead and/or lead compound emissions, the emissions from Asarco would place it as the seventh highest lead emitter in the country and second highest in Texas—second only to the Asarco facility in Amarillo. This coupled with the historic “Smeltertown,” the high levels of blood lead found in children in the 1970s, and the on-going cleanup of lead contaminated yards in our community—all resulting from Asarco’s operations—will protract and exacerbate a health threat legacy that we would all like to see end and will clearly cause any company or person to question locating in El Paso.
The highest level of arsenic emitted into the air in 2005 in the United States was by a plant in Shelby, Tennessee, which emitted 1.28 tons. The highest level of arsenic compounds emitted in the United States was 2.7 tons. The highest level of arsenic emitted by any facility in Texas was 0.007 tons, in Frisco. Currently there are no facilities in El Paso County that report emissions of arsenic. One cannot determine exactly how much arsenic Asarco’s copper smelter would emit because there is no arsenic limit in its permit. However, during Asarco’s operations in the 1990s, Asarco reported varying arsenic emission levels from 0.28 to 2.69 tons annually.
Asarco would also emit 6,673 tons annually of sulfur dioxide into the El Paso air. Currently the highest annual emissions of sulfur dioxide by any facility in El Paso is less than 550 tons. Additionally, Asarco would emit 470 tons annually of particulate matter. Currently the highest annual emissions by any facility in El Paso is 203 tons.
The City of El Paso is passionately dedicated to the long-term safety of its citizens and the economic viability of the El Paso area. The citizens of El Paso and our neighbors in New Mexico and Mexico will be exposed to these emissions of lead, arsenic and other pollutants for years to come if the Asarco copper smelter is allowed to reopen. For these reasons, the City of El Paso will continue its persistent opposition to the renewal of Asarco’s air quality permit and its unwavering duty to safeguard the citizens of El Paso. To read the entirety of this article, please go to www.elpasotexas.gov and click on ASARCO Information.