On a clear spring day in 2013, two smoke stacks fell in El Paso. They had been a part of the landscape, and the El Paso economy for years. It took a mere 30 seconds for them to come down.
The American Smelting and Refining Company, better known along the border as ASARCO, began operating in the late 1800s, just feet from the Rio Grande. As the community grew, so did ASARCO and by the end of the 1960s, the plant boasted both the tallest stack and one of the largest smelters in the world.
The work was grueling. They were heavy, industrial jobs requiring four separate furnaces to refine raw ore into copper ingots, a process that might net 12 ounces of metal from 100 pounds of rock. That process meant staggering amounts of waste including, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, arsenic and lead. ASARCO operated with minimal pollution controls until the 1970s. ASARCO was also involved in an illegal plan to secretly incinerate toxic waste that was brought in from other states. ASARCO is still a going multinational company, but they are no longer operating in El Paso.
While the health effects on the broader El Paso area are still being measured, there is quantified data on things like asthma rates and lead amounts in soil.
A new book offers a harrowingly intimate view into the lives of men that worked at ASARCO. They were Mexican-American men, many of them working there for two or three decades. At one time they were proud of the relatively high salaries they earned and ample overtime opportunities at the plant where the furnaces rarely ever cooled. But that pride curdled into resentment, as serious health issues including cancer, leukemia and mesothelioma lead to the deaths of dozens of former employees, and continues to affect the lives of dozens more.
Elaine Hampton is the co-author of “Copper Stain: ASARCO’s Legacy in El Paso,” and a retired associate professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. She spoke to almost 100 former ASARCO employees about their work and its impact on their lives.
“Whenever the men tell their stories… about what went on and how their lives are now we can get a little glimpse into that history,” Hampton says. “It’s a history that would’ve been lost. Totally lost. It’s a history about what happened inside those smelters. It’s a history of the racial and environmental injustices that were imposed upon the community and the people who work there.”
Written by Morgan Kuehler.