Asarco Noose Tightens, But Who Will Hang?
by Sito Negron
Posted on June 29, 2007
The Asarco saga will come to a head this summer. Or not. But the noose is tightening …
Asarco, the 100-year-old industrial metal producer, has applied for a renewal of its permit. The plant stopped producing product, primarily copper, in the late 1990s. In 2002, it applied for a renewal of its permit to produce emissions. Opponents of the plant note that the bureaucratic term, “emissions,” is a polite way of saying “pollution.”
However, pollution, in addition to being a commonly used term for noxious fumes that could tend to sicken a person if they inhaled, also is a legal definition for how much dirty stuff is in the air. So when Asarco claims it will not contribute to air pollution, it is making an argument based on the legal definition, not the commonly used term.
The process has been full of such distinctions, making it difficult for most to follow.
To begin with, a renewal never had been denied by the Commission. So in an unprecedented meeting in February 2006, the three-member Texas Commission on Environmental Quality made an unprecedented order. The order, officially issued in March 2006, gave Asarco six months to produce a new set of pollution forecasts, and it gave the TCEQ Executive Director six months to study the plant’s equipment. It gave the Executive Director eight months to produce a report to which the parties could respond.
The parties include Asarco, the City of El Paso, the Sierra Club, Acorn Sunset Heights, and the TCEQ Office of Public Interest Counsel. Those parties had seven weeks following the Executive Director’s report to respond to the report. However, the process was delayed, with the Executive Director not distributing his report until May, more than a year after the order. [report]
The parties to the issue, including those with official standing in the contested case, filed their last set of comments June 18. The Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality now has six weeks to issue a final report, after which the Commission will schedule a public meeting, in Austin, not El Paso as requested by state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and other permit opponents.
So it’s possible the issue could be decided by August, although because the process already has taken many twists, various elements could slow it down. The TCEQ notes public meetings schedule for July 25, Aug. 8 and 22, and Sept. 5-19. “A matter may be scheduled for Commission consideration as an emergency posting under the Open Meetings Act, although the circumstances for this will continue to be very rare,” states the TCEQ schedule portion of its website.
Also potentially affecting the timing of the decision are the terms of the Commission members. The three-person commission is Chairwoman Kathleen Hartnett White and members Larry R. Soward and H.S. Buddy Garcia. White’s term is up in August, according the a TCEQ spokesman. She may be reappointed, but if not, then there is the question of whether the Commission takes up the issue before she moves on. If not, then a new commissioner likely would want some time to understand the issue, delaying it even further.
These are just some basic process points. Currently, what the Executive Director and the commissioners have in front of them are the responses filed by various parties. Those include thousands of letters from the public – Acorn Sunset Heights, for example, initiated a massive letter-writing effort, and Asarco has initiated a similar campaign, which includes television ads.
One of the main arguments in the responses filed involve the issue of deadlines: Because the Executive Director took longer than the eight months provided in the March 2006 order to issue his report, the permit ought to be denied, argue permit opponents. Asarco counters that because the process was unprecedented, the extension was reasonable given the technical requirements of forecasting air pollution.
Asarco’s response also leans heavily on its 100-year history in El Paso, and the economic boost it would create. Asarco commissioned a report from the University of Texas at El Paso’s Institute for Policy and Economic Development, which indicated a direct gain of 291 jobs and salaries of $73 million. The indirect gain would be even larger, according to the study.
But Asarco’s history also is an issue raised by permit opponents. The single largest issue is the question of hazardous waste illegally disposed at Asarco – how much, and what type? That question was raised in an agreed order in 1999, in which Asarco agreed to pay a fine but did not admit to wrongdoing. However, an EPA memo indicated that the agency wanted to take legal action. [Read the background for that story.]
As a result of that order, Asarco agreed to pay the city for paving alleys. [story]
For a primer on the Asarco issue, please see
Back to the most recent: Newspaper Tree presents seven documents filed June 18, 2007, outlining the issues now being argued by permit opponents and by Asarco.
New Mexico Department of Environmental Quality [link]
Office of Public Interest Counsel [link]
City of El Paso [link]
State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh [link]
Sierra Club [link]
Sunset Heights Acorn [link]
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Sito Negron can be contacted at email@example.com, or at 351.0605.
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