County Judge, Veronica Escobar

  • U.S. says Asarco owes $27 million
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  • By Erica Molina Johnson / El Paso Times

  • The U.S. government is asking for more than $27 million in past and future costs to repair damage caused by Asarco's contamination of soil and groundwater, a pre-trial brief filed by the government in the company's bankruptcy case states.

  • The brief, filed Nov. 29 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of Texas, Corpus Christi Division, states that while Asarco operated as a smelter from at least 1887 through 1999, it "emitted pollution into the air that settled into earth nearby, resulting in the contamination of soils and groundwater."

  • The lawsuit states that between 1969 and 1971, the smelter emitted approximatelyh 1,116 tons of lead, 560 tons of zinc, 1.2 tons of arsenic and 12 tons of cadmium. Unsafe lead concentrations led to the closure of the nearby community of Smeltertown in the 1970s, the lawsuit states.

  • The document continues, stating that the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission has spent $268,219, not including interest, to undertake site investigation and testing, remediate contamination and undertake environmental measures associated with the construction of a guardhouse and a wash rack at the American Dam Compound.

  • The government is also anticipating $27 million in future costs by the commission related to smelter contamination.

  • The costs include $23.9 million to be spent on contamination damage when the American Canal is renovated.

  • Other future costs include about $735,000 to excavate and replace contaminated soil at the American Dam Compound, and $1.8 million to excavate and replace contaminated soil at an area used for equipment storage.

  • Asarco officials said they do not comment on pending litigation. International Boundary and Water Commission officials also declined to comment while the matter is in litigation.

  • The brief claims Asarco is the primary cause of lead and arsenic contamination at the commission's site, located on the Rio Grande and consisting of the American Dam, the American Canal and a complex used for equipment storage and maintenance.

  • "The USIBWC is forced to face these dangers due to the high contaminant levels that exist and the potential threat to the Rio Grande which serves as both a significant source of El Paso's drinking water and as a vital source of irrigation water," the document states.

  • The commission regulates and conserves the Rio Grande's water, and resolves sanitation and border water quality problems, the brief states.

  • The Rio Grande provides between 40 percent to 50 percent of the city's drinking water through the American Canal, and it also provides the irrigation water which area farmers use, the brief states.

  • "While Asarco has ceased its operations, it has left behind lead and arsenic contamination in both the soil and the groundwater, thus threatening the Rio Grande and worker safety," the brief states.

  • It continues. stating the commission or another federal agency can respond to this contamination, can identify responsible parties and has the right to reimbursement for its costs.
  • Arizona-based Asarco is awaiting a ruling from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on whether it can resume operations. The copper smelter was mothballed in 1999.

  • Erica Molina Johnson may be reached at emolina@elpasotimes.com; 546-6132.


  • County Judge
    Veronica Escobar