SHAPLEIGH SPEAKS OUT AGAINST SMELTER REOPENING
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) considered a permit application Wednesday for the re-opening of a large copper smelting facility located near El Paso. Due to increasing environmental concerns, the ASARCO owned factory was closed in 1999. Today, El Paso Senator Eliot Shapleigh spoke out against the permit application, citing the significant health problems that could result if the smelter is allowed to restart operations. He was joined by officials from El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, and the Mexican State of Chihuahua, as well as dozens of concerned citizens, in protest of the application. "Today we all come together with one strong voice to say, 'we want clean air'," said Shapleigh.
A study sponsored by the Sierra Club showed that the area near the plant, comprising regions in Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua, had elevated levels of contaminants associated with the smelting process, including silver, lead, and arsenic. Shapleigh fears that by reopening the ASARCO plant more contaminants will be introduced into the surrounding environment, which could lead to birth defects and developmental disabilities in children, as well as a decrease in the general health of the surrounding communities.
El Paso Mayor John Cook joined Shapleigh in opposing the permit application. "We breathe the air, we drink the water, our kids play on the soil," said Cook. "We have to provide a safe environment for them. Safety for our children should be our number one concern; economic development should take a back seat to that."
Chihuahua State Senator Jeffery Jones said that re-opening the plant would actually be detrimental to economic development in the area. Jones said that the growth industry in the region has been small manufacturing, rather than large industry. By allowing the smelter to re-open, Jones said the decreased quality of health will make it difficult to attract workers for smaller, less polluting industries. "I think the key message here today is that closing ASARCO down is good for the region's health and it's good for the region's economic base," said Jones.
In Wednesday's hearing, the TCEQ decided that ASARCO had not met standards to renew the smelter's air permit, but that current statutes are unclear on what the next step for the company is. The director of TCEQ will visit the site and commission additonal studies, and is expected to deliver a report back to the commission in seven months.