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Sierra Club study links El Paso lead to ASARCO
-- By ALICIA A. CALDWELL Associated Press Writer
EL PASO, Texas - A study by a university chemist links high levels of lead and arsenic in soil around El Paso to an Arizona copper mining company with a smelter in the border city, an environmental group said Tuesday.
The Sierra Club study by Northern Arizona University chemist Michael E.
Ketterer was released about a week before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is scheduled to hold a hearing on an air quality permit renewal for the ASARCO Inc. smelter.
The El Paso facility, originally given an air quality permit by the TCEQ in 1992, was idled in 1999 when copper prices dipped.
The Sierra Club, other environmental activists and area residents have long argued that ASARCO is responsible for massive amounts of air and ground pollution in El Paso, Anapra, N.M., and Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande in Mexico.
In an e-mail response to the study, Lairy Johnson, ASARCO's environmental manager in El Paso, questioned Ketterer's results and derided the study as incomplete and biased.
"ASARCO applauds the use of good scientific studies and continually seeks to support sound research using accepted protocol and peer-reviewed environmental guidelines," Johnson wrote. "However, a cursory review raises question about the veracity and accuracy of this study."
ASARCO officials have denied that the company's smelter, which has been in El Paso for more than 100 years, caused pollution. The company has said elevated lead levels were caused by lead-based paint and other contaminants.
Ketterer, who could not be reached for comment, compared lead isotopes found in 97 soil samples from El Paso, Anapra and Ciudad Juarez to lead isotopes found in soil near the Santa Eulalia mine in Chihuahua, Mexico, where a lot of ore refined at the El Paso mine originated, according to the report.
Ketterer concluded that ASARCO was a dominant source of contamination.
"The sampled locations do not contain any examples of situations where non-ASARCO source (devoid of contaminants) can completely account for the observed contaminants," Ketterer wrote in his conclusions.
Oliver Bernstein, a Sierra Club border representative in Austin, said the study was commissioned to show the TCEQ that there is "no room for doubt that ASARCO is responsible" for polluting the area.
"The contamination came out of the stacks as air pollution and over the years ended up settling in the soil," Bernstein said of the lead and arsenic. "The study shows that the contamination came from ASARCO."
In October, a pair of administrative judges ruled that ASARCO's air permit should not be renewed, saying that the Tucson, Ariz., company had not proven that it would not add pollution to the air above El Paso.
The TCEQ will have the final say on the permit renewal at its Feb. 8 meeting in Austin. Opponents organized by the El Paso chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, are planning to ride a bus from El Paso to Austin for the hearing.