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Are Industrial Relics Worth Preserving?

The iconic 828-foot smokestack in El Paso, Texas is set for demolition unless a group can raise the millions needed to save it.
Photo by Nicole Chavez.
The iconic 828-foot smokestack in El Paso, Texas is set for demolition unless a group can raise the millions needed to save it.

Some call the ASARCO smokestacks in El Paso, Texas visual pollution. Others say they are historical treasures.

El Paso's Smoke Stacks
El Paso's Smoke Stacks

Abandoned warehouses, shuttered factories and old shipyards that litter the landscape of most American cities are reminders of our industrial past.

In the Southwest, one of the most significant industrial relics is the giant 800-foot smokestack towering above Interstate 10 in El Paso, Texas. The stack belonged to the Arizona-based American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO).

Now, the future of that smokestack is in the hands of a group of local residents who have one year to raise enough money to keep it standing. Otherwise, it will be torn down.


There is a debate in the community as to whether the smoke stack has now become a part of the city’s history worth preserving or a reminder of a polluted past that should be torn down.

During an on-site clean up, a 62-ton excavator hammers into a concrete foundation on the 400-acre property. About all that's left on the grounds are heaps of twisted scrap metal and hill-sized mounds of black slag.

For more than a century, ASARCO was a major economic engine in the region, second only to the railroads. The plant started operating in 1887 as a copper and lead smelter that brought in thousands of jobs, led to the construction of the local university and attracted investors as significant as the Guggenheim family.

Roberto Puga is the trustee appointed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to oversee the massive clean up. His California-based company, Project Navigator, will sell it once remediation is complete.

ASARCO filed for bankruptcy two years ago and dedicated nearly $2 billion to clean up 80 sites around the country. The two remaining smokestacks in El Paso were set to come down in three months. But then a group of about 50 locals asked Puga to halt those plans.


“The stacks are, I think, an important cultural icon in El Paso,” Puga said. “There's a vigorous debate among ‘El Pasoans’ as to whether they should stay up or come down.”

When Puga announced he would temporarily halt plans to destroy the stacks, he caused a stir. Despite its significant economic contributions to the community, more recent generations tend to think of ASARCO as the toxic boogieman.

Six years ago, hundreds of residents protested against the smelter's permit renewal. They accused ASARCO of poisoning their neighborhood and sickening their children. Studies done in the 1970s showed that children in El Paso, neighboring New Mexico and across the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juárez had high levels of lead in their blood.

NPR and the Center for Public Integrity reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined the ASARCO plant in Hayden, Ariz. was emitting illegal amounts of dangerous contaminants. ASARCO operates two other plants in Arizona and one in Amarillo, Texas.

El Paso residents have foul memories of the plant. Peggy McNeil was a college student at the University of Texas at El Paso when the ASARCO plant operated near the campus.

“I remember walking to school and right about the corner of University and Oregon you'd get the first whiff of sulfur and it would stick in your mouth,” McNeil said. “You would smell it and you would taste it.”

Currently, the ASARCO grounds in El Paso are contaminated with mostly arsenic, lead and cadmium. McNeil is against saving the two on site smokestacks. She argues the site cannot be considered fully cleaned until the two towers are demolished.

“These are toxic towers. People are behaving like ‘Oh, this is something that we love or we hate.’ It's not,” she said. “This is waste product and it should be considered that.”

Others in town feel differently.

Michael Wyatt is a local attorney who has fought ASARCO for 20 years. Now he is fighting a different fight, with the group that wants the stacks to stay. Among those supporters are local and state representatives, businessmen and some former ASARCO workers.

“What we know is that nobody is ever going to build a stack like that on the planet earth. They just don't build them anymore,” Wyatt said. “To tear it down would be to demolish a piece of history that tells a story about this community.”

Other places around the country have re-purposed old industrial sites. In San Antonio, an old cement plant was converted into a massive shopping and entertainment center. Old factory photographs were blown up and placed outside a movie theater and outdated machinery became parking lot artwork. At Christmas time, the factory's old smokestacks are lit up like candy canes.

Across the border from El Paso in Ciudad Juárez, residents also claim to have suffered from ASARCO's fumes.

Consuelo Renteria lives in Colonia Ladrillera, less than a mile from the old smelter. In the morning, the giant smokestack casts a long shadow over her neighborhood. She remembers years ago roaming the streets near her house collecting contaminated soil samples in her flip-flops.

She marched alongside El Pasoans during ASARCO protests. When asked about the smokestacks today, she still feels very strongly about them.

“Don't tear them down,” she said. “Keep them up as a reminder of our struggle and of our victory.”

The group of smokestack supporters must raise an estimated $14 million to pay for a structural evaluation, seismic retrofitting and insurance. If they fail, the stacks will come down in about one year.