Landmark border smokestacks toppled in El Paso

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by ANGELA KOCHERGA

WFAA Border Bureau

Posted on April 13, 2013 at 8:40 AM

Updated Saturday, Apr 13 at 9:41 AM

EL PASO — What was was once the tallest smokestack in the U.S. became a pile of rubble in less than a minute on Saturday morning.

"I hate to see it go. I really do. It's a landmark," said Christi Darling, 71, as she used a disposable camera to take a photo before the demolition. The El Paso native was one of several people who stopped near the smokestack to get a final snapshot.

Just after dawn Saturday, demolition crews used 300 pounds of dynamite to implode smokestack and a smaller companion that towered over the Rio Grande.

Residents have mixed emotions about the demolition. The smelter created hundreds of jobs, but also polluted both sides of the border before it shut down in 1999.

"My grandfather worked at Asarco ‘til the day he died. He died in an industrial accident at Asarco," said James Johnson, who lives near the smelter.

His grandfather, Adolfo Soto, died on the job in 1958.

The American Refining and Smelter Company set up shop in El Paso in 1887. At its peak, the smelter employed hundreds of people and was a pillar of the local economy.

One historian said Pancho Villa worked there briefly.

“He got enough money to go start his revolution,” Johnson said.

But along with the lore, there’s a toxic legacy. Johnson was among hundreds of children tested for lead contamination in the early 1970s. He was fine.

"I’ve had neighbors — one 98 and 102 years old — lived their whole lives under the stacks,” Johnson said.

But a landmark study by the Centers for Disease Control found more than half of the children living within a four-mile radius of smelter had levels of lead in the their blood four times higher than the accepted level.

Dangerous levels of lead can cause developmental disorders in children.

In 1970, the city of El Paso and the State of Texas sued the smelter, and the environmental problems dragged on for years. The EPA denied Asarco's request to reopen the plant one last time in 2010.

Some worried demolishing the smokestack might release dangerous contamination into the Rio Grande below. But the EPA gave the green light to bring the 828-foot smokestack down after reviewing the demolition plan.

Despite the environmental problems, people who live in small neighborhood in the shadow of Asarco said Friday they’ll miss the towering smokestack.

“My mom said all the spirits are going to get up tomorrow and hold it up, everybody that died there," Johnson said.

E-mail akocherga@belo.com

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