Editor’s Note: Part Two of our story on former Asarco smelter workers in El Paso, Texas. This series was made possible in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Links to previous stories and photos in our series on the old smelter can be found at the bottom of this article.
In a tradition that was passed down from father-to-son and across the family tree, multiple generations found secure employment at the now-defunct El Paso plant run by the American Smelting and Refining Company (Asarco).
The pay and benefits were good by local standards, and union representation was a part of the package. Asarco men with high school educations could actually look forward to a company-paid retirement after a lifetime with one employer.
But, there was a “price to pay,” says former Asarco electrician Charlie Rodriguez, who acts as the point man for a group of sick ex-workers. “We didn’t realize what the company was doing to us.”
Rodriguez and other ex-workers cope with diseases and illnesses ranging from cancer to skin rashes they blame on their years at the historic smelter, which churned out lead, copper and other products for
more than a century before shutting down in 1999. In 2013 the smelter’s iconic chimneys were demolished, accelerating a bankruptcy court-sanctioned environmental remediation that’s entering its final stages. Nowadays, the old Asarco workers get by on modest company pensions, Social Security checks and extra income they hobble together.
For awhile, Rodriguez tried his hand at truck driving but found it too tiring. Hammered with myriad illnesses, Rodriguez and other ex-workers find themselves digging deeper into their pockets for doctors’ co-pays and medicine. Rodriguez and his friends insist that they need a comprehensive health study to know what is happening to their bodies, as well as possible help in meeting growing medical bills.
So, what is making the former workers sick? Do their old jobs have anything to do with their health misfortunes? Is anyone attending to their grievances?
For starters, the lead and arsenic once present in fresh quantities at the smelter are persistent toxic metals that can have devastating effects on the human body. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, long-term exposure to arsenic is linked to skin disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancers; lead is associated with kidney, blood, nervous system, and childhood cognitive development problems. Clusters of multiple sclerosis, including one in El Paso, have been identified in proximity to smelters.
In the early 1980s workers at Asarco’s El Paso plant were exposed to “relatively high levels” of lead and arsenic, says Mike Wright, director of the health, safety and environment program for the United Steelworkers Union (USW). “Almost everyone who worked on the lead side would be exposed to lead,” Wright affirms.
On behalf of the USW, which represented most of the Asarco workers, Wright visited the El Paso smelter several times. The union official says multiple U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) inspections encountered arsenic and lead above “permissible levels,” resulting in citations that Asarco initially contested.
The upshot was a mid-1980s agreement that included, among other measures, new engineering controls and a company commitment to relocate workers with high blood levels of toxic metals to positions where they would be less exposed and at the same rate of pay.
“The company at that point complied with these in good faith,” Wright recalls three decades later. “We really worked hard to make sure Asarco had a good respirator program, but respirators are an imperfect solution,” he adds, cautioning that the protective gear can not only leak but is frequently impractical in a hot environment like the El Paso smelter.
In 1985 the smelter’s lead plant was shut down and Asarco focused on copper smelting, which still exposed El Paso workers to arsenic during the production process.
Yet the worker safety agreement between the company, union and government was not renewed after a few years, Wright says, due to Asarco’s competitors taking “a different route” of limiting costs by resisting OSHA instead of installing new processes and policies. Asarco’s safety personnel supported the El Paso agreement, he adds, but higher-ups in the corporation scrapped it with an eye to the competition and their own balance sheets.
Ex-Asarco workers cast their eyes on other substances they might have been exposed to on the job. And like the toxic defoliant Agent Orange that former worker Efren Martinez handled while a soldier in Vietnam, some of the ghost poisons of Asarco are likewise linked to the U.S. military projections of the Cold War.
>From 1991 to 1998, Asarco incinerated hazardous waste at its El Paso smelter in an activity the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later termed a “sham recycling” business. The operation earned the company a $5.5 million federal fine and resulted in a confidential consent agreement with the federal environmental agency.
A good part of the waste stream handled by Asarco subsidiary Encycle and shipped to El Paso came from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, where chemical warfare agents were once produced. Private chemical companies also used the Rocky Mountain Arsenal to dispose of pesticides.
Former Asarco workers and environmentalists in the Paso del Norte borderland suspect that nerve gas, pesticides and even radioactive materials were illegally dispensed of in the heat of the El Paso smelter.
Ex-workers Efren Martinez, Charlie Rodriguez and Dan Arellano say they were never given special training or advised of possible dangers from the hazardous waste incineration.
“They never told us they were using chemicals that weren’t appropriate for making copper,” Martinez recalls. “The only protection we had were respirators.”
During Asarco’s bankruptcy process, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) filed a document in 2009 with the Corpus Christi federal court that cited a 2007 General Accounting Office Report as stating that Encycle did not accept radioactive and explosive materials, or dioxins.
According to the TCEQ, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal waste headed to El Paso was of a “low hazard level” consisting of dissolved salts and residual metal, with the organic compounds previously destroyed by incineration. The TCEQ added that it had no proof to substantiate suspicions that Encycle, and ultimately by extension the El Paso Asarco facility, had received waste from Colorado’s old Rocky Flats nuclear weapons complex.
Prior to the 2013 demolition of Asarco’s El Paso chimneys, Project Navigator, the private company in charge of the environmental remediation of the old smelter, reported that its tests did not detect substances connected to chemical or nuclear warfare agents. Two years earlier Texas Custodial Trustee Roberto Puga, Project Navigator’s man spearheading the demolition, told this reporter that manifests from the hazardous waste stream indicated the presence of brine-like material as well as a solvent in one instance.
The GAO report was written based on information from the EPA and other government sources, but ex-workers and environmentalists like Heather McMurray, who maintains a blog on El Paso Asarco (http://epgtlo.blogspot.com), continue to question the extent of official disclosures and challenge the official conclusions of the Encycle saga.
Lin Nelson, a retired professor of environmental health and community studies at Evergreen State College in Washington who has researched Asarco’s big environmental and public health footprint across the United States for more than a decade, cites a saying in the occupational health field in reference to the lingering doubts over Encycle: “Absence of evidence is not any way evidence of absence.”
Tracking and treating occupational illnesses of former smelter workers in El Paso and elsewhere is not the simplest task, according to Nelson.
Closed in the 1980s, Asarco’s smelter in Tacoma, Washington, once posed its own share of problems, Nelson says, including “a lot of horrific accidents in the plant,” as well as a suspicious pattern of “lung disorders and skin disorders” among former workers.
Although Nelson praises the environmental remediation and ongoing metals monitoring that was launched across four Washington counties in the post-smelter era, she says identifying and addressing the health issues of former workers in Puget Sound remains slippery decades after the smelter’s closure.
“It’s not that they’re excluded, but they’re literally gone to the winds,” she adds. “They’ve passed, they’ve moved.” In El Paso, toxic PCBs enter into the equation. From 2005 to 2014, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) worked with former Asarco workers and the old ACORN organization in a fight against Asarco’s efforts to obtain a Texas state air permit that would allow the plant to reopen, and later on, in offering Puga advice about PCBs and other suspected residues of contamination during the environmental remediation of the old Asarco site.
“Workers were one of the few to remain active and interested in remediation..we really wanted to make sure that the remediation got to some of the illegal activity that went on including Encycle.” TRLA attorney Veronica Carbajal says.
In a 2011 letter, Carbajal reminded TCEQ and EPA officials that PCB oils were once commonly used in the smelter’s electrical equipment. The letter noted that the EPA signed a 1994 consent agreement with Asarco related to the company’s failure in El Paso to “account for its PCB items and waste from 1978 to 1991, as well as improperly storing and labeling PCB items and waste.”
Carbajal wrote that “thousands of gallons of PCBs at Asarco cannot be accounted for in either the company’s or the government’s records.”
Banned for manufacture in the U.S. after 1979, PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals, as well as produce adverse effects on immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems, according to an EPA summary of the chemicals. “Studies in humans provide supportive evidence for potential carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic effects of PCBs,” the EPA states.
The former Asarco workers Carbajal represented maintained that Asarco had incinerated oils containing PCBs, which create toxic dioxins and furans during burning.
Project Navigator’s sub-contractor, Malcolm Pirnie, Inc., contended that it was impossible to incinerate the PCBs as alleged without causing a fire or even an explosion, but Carbajal heard detailed accounts from several ex-workers on how the task was accomplished by keeping down the heat and feeding loads of oil paced at intervals into the reverb furnace.
In an interview at her office, Carbajal displayed a sketch one worker drew that depicted the process. What’s more, when ex-workers were brought back to their old workplace for advice on the remediation, they noticed that the bricks on the reverb building were newer and not the ones that could have been contaminated by the burning of the PCBs.
“What happened to the old bricks?” she asks.
Eventually, Puga’s work crews accumulated 22 “roll-off bins” of PCB-containing remediation waste soil, each with a capacity of 20 cubic yards, as well as 40 cubic yards of stockpiled cobbles (pieces of rock) from another location on the smelter site, the old powerhouse where Charlie Rodriguez once worked.
Per federal and state rules, the TCEQ approved the transportation last year of 21 bins of the waste soil by Chemical Transportation, Inc. to the U.S. Ecology Texas disposal facility in Robstown Texas, a site that is licensed to accept PCB contaminated soils with concentrations higher than 50 mg/kg; the 22nd bin, containing PCB contaminated soils with a concentration of less than 50 ppm ,was placed along with the cobbles into Landfill Cell 4 on the old Asarco property, according to Puga.
Nonetheless, the PCB laced-soil was “relatively small” in comparison with the overall contamination at the ex-smelter, he says.
Differences exist among Carbajal, the workers and Puga over the remediation. Carbajal gives some credit to Puga for taking into account workers’ tips, Puga defends the scope of his work and some ex-workers criticize the trustee’s approach to the matter.
Former electrician Charlie Rodriguez says Puga never allowed the workers to do independent testing while the trustee’s work crews merely nudged around the edges of the property, limiting their digging.
“I don’t think they got anything,” he contends. “I think most of it’s there. This was not a clean-up. This is a containment.”
Puga shares some agreement with Rodriguez in that he defines his work as a “containment remedy” as opposed to a full-scale removal of contaminants from the site. The Texas Custodial Trustee is poignant:
“I wasn’t given enough money to do that,” Puga says. “That would have cost up to half a billion dollars.”
In fact, the bankruptcy court earmarked only $52 million for the El Paso Asarco remediation, an amount that proved insufficient even for Project Navigator’s containment job. In a phone interview, Puga told FNS that he expects the final cost of site remediation to reach around $80 million when the project is finished, with completion planned for the coming fall.
To close the cost gap, the Texas Custodial Trust has earned about $28 million to date from the sale of left-over assets at the smelter, including copper matte, lead, the oxygen plant and other materials, Puga says. Currently, Puga is negotiating with the University of Texas at El Paso to sell Asarco’s old land to the school. Any money from the sale will go into the Texas Custodial Trust, controlled by EPA and TCEQ, to be held for “extraordinary” events like a catastrophic flood at the old smelter site, he says.
Besides financial considerations, Puga argues that digging everything up and simply moving the pollution problem from one place to another would have involved accident risks deriving from “thousands of truck trips to move the stuff.”
As the remediation moved forward, the ex-workers and Carbajal knocked on many doors seeking help for a comprehensive health assessment. “We looked around to a number of different agencies and none of them were positive,” she says. For instance, the El Paso attorney displayed a 2011 letter from her office petitioning the Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to do a health assessment of the former Asarco workers.
In response, ATSDR chief William Cibulas wrote back that per Superfund legislation his agency is “not charged to evaluate the exposure employees may have received as part of their occupational duties.”
As for other possible health care remedies, local doctors and university professionals have been reluctant to get involved, while chances for justice in the courts are remote in a situation involving litigation against large corporations, Carbajal says.
“Torts that are from long term (toxic) exposures are difficult to prove and spend time on,” she adds.
Taking office in 2013, U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke lent his hand to ex-Asarco employees fervently seeking answers for their worsening health issues. Until now, his experience has been strikingly similar to Carbajal’s.
“It’s been a very difficult process,” O’Rourke says. “We don’t know fully everything that was burned but we know it was bad stuff,” O’Rourke adds about the possible occupational exposures suffered by the workers. “We’re not ready to give up, given in large part that (ex-workers) are not ready to give up.”
The El Paso Democrat told FNS that the EPA, TCEQ, the Texas Custodial Trustee, the Texas Department of State Health Services, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the ATSDR were among the agencies his office has contacted for possible assistance, but to no avail.
More recently, O’Rourke says he broached the idea of setting up a special fund derived from the Texas Custodial Trustee’s sale of smelter assets but ran into opposition from the EPA and TCEQ, both of which asserted that it would change the terms of the bankruptcy settlement and even invite Asarco to repetition for assets. The environmental agencies’ position, O’Rourke concedes, represented a “legitimate concern.”
“The difficult truth is that at every turn we’ve been unsuccessful.” O’Rourke added, “I’m not ready to give up, but I’ve been very careful not to offer false hope to former employees..”
The Texas Congressman maintains that the workers have a compelling case as evidenced by a 2013 “body-mapping” exercise sponsored by the USW.
Jim Frederick, assistant director of the USW’s health and safety program, says the body-mapping, in which workers created a group profile of their illnesses, detected four major health problems that appeared higher than the national average among the 75 ex-Asarco employees who participated, including skin rashes, lung illnesses, neurological troubles and assorted cancers.
Frederick clarifies that the body-mapping is not an epidemiological study, but “a screening tool” that can point in directions a more exhaustive scientific study should undertake. Complicating matters for the ex-Asarco workers, he says, is the lag between their employment and their current ages when more health issues come up “as part of natural life.”
Adds Carbajal: “We’re talking latent symptoms. With something like leukemia or a blood disorder, the symptoms may take a number of years to manifest.” What then, is in store for the former workers?
Institutionally, NIOSH could figure among the last possibilities for a health assessment. The USW’s Mike Wright says his union has been in discussions with NIOSH for a broader medical study, but budgets and NIOSH’s focus on current as opposed to retired workers stand as obstacles.
“They haven’t refused. We’re still discussing it,” Wright says. A spokesperson at NIOSH’s central office could not confirm the agency’s involvement in the ex-Asarco workers matter. Congressman O’Rourke recalls that as a Washington first-termer he mulled over legislation to aid the ex-workers but was dissuaded by a senior colleague who ranked the chances of passing such a bill as improbable.
Despite highly unfavorable political odds in the current Congress, Carbajal and Frederick concur that either state or federal legislation is a possible solution to the ex-Asarco workers’ demands for medical attention. Frederick points to the Department of Energy’s program for nuclear industry workers that was established by legislation 20 years ago. Conceivably, the much smaller numbers of ex-Asarco workers in El Paso would make a similar program far less costly.
“This is not a program of trying to provide medical assistance to tens of thousands of former workers,” he says.
Talk of financial limitations prickle Rodriguez and his friends. During an interview as the Ukraine crisis flared last summer, Rodriguez and Dan Arellano reflected on the irony of their situation as sick U.S. workers who spent decades contributing to the economy.
“There’s money to send a billion dollars to the damn war in Russia, for the place that doesn’t belong to us, but they can’t spend money on Americans,” Rodriguez pronounced.
On Saturday, May 2, Carbajal returned old medical records to former workers at an El Paso high school library. TRLA went as far as it could on the case, she later told FNS.
To Carbajal’s surprise, about half of the attendees were ex-workers she had not seen before but who nevertheless turned out with health concerns to a meeting publicized through the network of former Asarco employees.
Charlie Rodriguez says talk of staging a demonstration to thrust their issue into the public limelight surfaced among the 19 former workers and 2 widows who were in attendance.
Arellano, who once worked the reverb furnace, is gloomy about the prospects of Hispanic workers he considers were discarded and left to flutter in the desert wind by the powers-that-be.
“I’m a half-human,” he says of his post-employment treatment. “We’re humans. We should be treated like humans. I know Charlie is trying his hardest, but I don’t think anything will pan out… all these cards are stacked against us…once we’re gone it’s gonna be a thing in the past. People will put it in an archive.”
Arellano is a feisty and good-humored man who is proud of his roles in rallying former workers. By his own accounts, he’s paid more than just union dues. He recalled how during his activist years strange men parked outside his home in surveillance mode, and the time when the Department of Homeland Security was called out on he and other protesters when the group presented the late Archie Clouse, the former director of the TCEQ office in El Paso, with sand from the contaminated Sunset Heights neighborhood behind the Asarco plant.
“This is what the kids play with,’” Arellano recalled a fellow activist telling Clouse before security moved in. “It’s been a long battle, but I’m happy with the results. We were able to shut down the plant and speak up for the workers.” For the smelter veteran, the Asarco workers’ struggle stands as an example for the younger generations.
In his post-Asarco life, Arellano cherishes passing time with his five grandchildren and raising fancy, prize pigeons. “Finally, I think I’m gonna be in one of the pigeon books,” he beams.
Like Arellano, Rodriguez contends too that the workers have been tossed into the winds. “I guess we weren’t human. We were workers,” he says. “Our issue has always been put on the backburner. They’re just waiting for us to die.”
The borderlander confesses to feeling weaker from various ailments as time passes. “Now I feel it big time,” he says. “Now I know what these guys are going through. When you see the guys they have great attitudes, but they’re sick.”
What keeps the tenacious man going? “My kids, my grandkids. They’re all getting in college. That makes me happy, but I’m too young to kick the bucket-65. I want to make it to 75 or 80. Plus, I keep busy…”
Does the story of El Paso’s Asarco workers have lessons for other communities and workforces, especially those facing a polluter in bankruptcy proceedings? TRLA’s Veronica Carbajal affirms that big red flags are waving from the ruins of the El Paso smelter.
“There isn’t a fund to help workers like this who are left holding the bag when employers declare bankruptcy,” Carbajal says. “It’s important for workers who continue working in industries like Asarco to not trust the company or the agencies supposedly regulating the company,” the public interest lawyer adds, urging workers to stay “vigilant” and proactive in observing and reporting problems to private lawyers, non-company doctors and the appropriate authorities when necessary.