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Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Regular Public Meeting May 19, 2005

Minutes of Big Bend Regional Sierra Club, May 19, 2005

Mariana Chew, who works with the Beyond the Borders program of the Sierra Club in El Paso, spoke at the October 20 meeting of Big Bend Regional Sierra Club about efforts in El Paso to defeat a petition to renew the air permit given by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the American Smelting and Refinery Company of El Paso -- ASARCO.

In introducing Ms. Chew, Don Dowdey explained to the group that the Sierra Club's Beyond the Borders program was established after a binational meeting held in Brownsville, Tx., and in Matamoros, Mx., during which Sierra Club leaders saw that environmental concerns ranged beyond national borders, affecting Americans and Mexicans alike. Oliver Bernstein is the U.S. /Mexican representative for Beyond the Borders and he had recommended that Ms. Chew speak to the Big Bend group. She is currently studying for her master's degree in environmental water policy at the University of Texas at El Paso. She is also doing work with the Sierra Club on grassroots organizing in Mexico and the U.S., particularly in challenging Asarco's plans to reopen its smelting operation in El Paso.

For more than 100 years ASARCO operated its smelting operation in El Paso, at the beginning producing lead and then smelting copper, Ms. Chew told the group. In 1999 the smelter halted operation because the price of copper fell. Now the company has applied for permission to renew its air permit "because it is economically convenient," she said, and without regard for the pollution it caused over the years, which has aroused wide opposition within the city to the plant's reopening.

Hearings were held during July with input from affected parties -- Ms. Chew passed out notes on the hearings from Jim Kelly of the Get the Lead Out coalition -- but there was at that time no input from Mexico although Juarez residents are perhaps the most affected by the lead pollution from the plant. The community of Anapra, New Mexico, is also affected by the Asarco operation, but New Mexico was not allowed to state its case either, because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is legally bound to consider only Texas complainants.

Ms. Chew and Rodrigo Mercado, her husband, explained to the group that Asarco's efforts to disperse its pollution -- by building higher smokestacks to send pollution higher into the atmosphere -- had actually affected more area with pollution. Fran Sage suggested that the EPA might be able to help by checking whether Guadelupe National Park is affected by lead particulates, since as a national park it should be considered a Class 1 area.

TCEQ has always allowed Asarco to self-monitor its pollution, the couple explained, and there were no controls until 1979-81. When controls were established, Asarco said they should be grandfathered because setting up a new plant would send them into bankruptcy, and take jobs away from the people of El Paso. Asarco always said they were taking 'proper steps,' such as putting in a new scrubber. 'But it was a pilot, a prototype from a German design, and kept breaking down.' It was supposed to take care of sulfur and other heavy metals. This information came out in the hearings.

The EPA level is supposed to be 400 ppm (particulates per meter) and Ms. Chew's classes did test levels that found particulates at 10,000 ppm, she said. The communities that received 66 percent of the ASARCO pollution -- the most lead in the soil -- were in Mexico and the town of Anapra in New Mexico, neither of whom were able to protest at the hearings. If the permit is renewed, Asarco could also sell its pollution credits to another plant that is in compliance with TCEQ rules.

Ms. Chew said she was in the midst of setting up a binational forum to try to alert Mexico to the threat from a renewed Asarco permit. Under the Nafta trade agreement, it should be illegal to put polluting plants on the border -- but that's exactly where the Asarco plant is. Mexican officials, however, have been reluctant to challenge industry, she said, saying that people in Juarez with lead poisoning have come there from other areas, or that lead contamination is due to self-medicating or from eating Mexican candies.

In the past, Asarco has had numerous violations but has never been officially reprimanded, and has just been asked to take care of it, Ms. Chew and Mr. Mercado said. And if they are allowed to reopen and ordered to operate a clean plant, how can they get the money to clean it up if they are bankrupt? At the hearings, plant employees testified that Asarco intentially turned off pollution controls and let the pollution blow into Mexico. They said they knew it was not ethical or moral, but it was legal, since there were supposed controls only in Texas.

Ms. Chew and Mr. Mercado said they -- and others who are fighting Asarco -- want to make sure that EPA doesn't allow self-monitoring. "The law can be tougher than federal standards, but Texas (the TCEQ) has allowed it to be more lenient than federal standards. At one point they will have to bring it down -- when you violate 454 times from 1953 to 1999, with their track record and the way they operate, they (Asarco) can't change overnight."

They said their goal also is "to get TCEQ to do their job." In the past, the Texas authorities "never had surprise inspections" and always informed Asarco in advance when the plant would be monitored. The Sierra Club and others opposing the renewal of the permit say that if TCEQ renews the permit there should be stronger rules on monitoring and clear sanctions for pollution incidents. "If Asarco gets the permit renewal, it's like giving them a pardon for the past," Ms. Chew said.

She said she is trying to get Mexican officials to follow the Nafta treaty and will ask Mexican President Fox to write a letter to U.S. President Bush about the Asarco pollution and the El Paso treatment plant, which she says could be a pilot for Mexican-U.S. cooperation. She is trying to get 9,000 signatures from people in Mexico who are opposed to Asarco.