Historic Details...

(Adapted from Institute for Policy and Economic Development UTEP doc)


1887: Robert S. Town, a pioneer industrialist, founds El Paso lead smelter in order to handle lead ores from Mexico.

1894: ASARCO operates a small hospital for employees and residents of Smeltertown, a community which grew up next to the plant on Doniphan Drive.   The hospital was founded by Dr. Michael P. Schuster of Kansas City.  He was assisted by Dr. Henry Towne Safford, nephew and namesake of the smelter’s founder. The hospital operated for 66 years, closing in 1960.



1899: Smelter becomes part of American Smelting and Refining Co.



1900: Many of the original workers at ASARCO at the turn of the century were of German descent.  It was not unusual to see a keg of cold German- brewed beer in the furnace rooms, according to newspaper accounts.



1911: ASARCO adds copper smelter at a cost of $300,000.



1911: ASARCO workers had a front row seat in the Mexican Revolution. One revolutionary leader, Pascual Orozco set up camp across the Rio Grande from ASARCO, just a stone’s throw from the smelter.  El Pasoans came up from town and showed their support for the insurrectos by throwing dollars and cookies across the river to the Orozco army.



1914: The outbreak of WWI creates huge need for metals, including zinc, copper and lead.



1920-1930: Refugees from the Mexican Revolution- poor, and without many resources, are able to find employment at the ASARCO plant.  They are able to join the working/middle class with these jobs.



1933: The Rev. Lourdes Costa, a Spaniard and pastor of San Jose Catholic Church is Smeltertown, persuades members of the congregation to erect a huge cross at the peak of nearby Cerro de Mulerso.



1940: The 42 foot monument to Christ the King is completed and dedicated.  “A monument to the dedication and commitment of the ASARCO workers who built it” (IPED).



1948: ASARCO constructs slag fuming facilities to recover zinc from lead blast furnace slag.



1949: United Min, Mill and Smelter Workers, CIO, goes on strike at ASARCO.  Strike ends weeks later when contract is approved.



1951: ASARCO builds a 610 foot chimney as demands increase for more pollutant control.


1967: ASARCO’s Mexican mines and plants reorganize as ASARCO Mexicana S.A., and 51% interest is sold to Mexican investors.



1967: 828 foot smokestack completed; at the time, the largest in the world.



Late 1960’s to early 1970’s: Employment at El Paso smelter peaks at 1,500 employees.



1970, April 24th: City of El Paso files $1Million lawsuit, later joined by the State, charging ASARCO with violations of the Texas Clean Air Act and Air Safety Code.



1970, May:  State of Texas joins the suit with the City of El Paso against ASARCO.



1970: ASARCO invests heavily in pollution control equipment.  From 1970- 1987 it spends $100Million to combat pollution.



1971: Dr Bernard Rosenblum head of El Paso City Health Dept, starts investigating toxins in the air.



1971: El Paso City- County Health department reports ASARCO had emitted 1,012 metric tons of lead between 1969 and 1971 and later determined the smelter was the principle source of particulate lead within a radios of one mile.  During that period, the smelter also emitted 520 tons of zinc, 1.2 tons of arsenic and 12 tons of cadmium.  ASARCO also reported the smelter was emitting about 230,500 tons of sulfur dioxide a year, or 640 tons a day, during 1969-1971.



1971: Center for Disease Control dispatches two young doctors to investigate.  One is Phillip Landrigan (now a world expert on child lead poisoning.)



1971: Additional pollution control equipment is added which results in an 80 % reduction of lead emissions.  Completion of new sulfuric acid plant with its safe scrubbing equipment further reduces lead emissions.



1971: High levels of lead found in the soil at Smeltertown, adjacent to the smelter prompting the company to remove the top 1 ½ feet of soil and replace it with fresh dirt.



1972: High blood lead levels in children living near smelter discovered. ASARCO buys land in Smeltertown and removes residents.



1972: Sulfuric Acid plant installed to convert sulfur dioxide gas into acid.



1973: Smelter town is demolished.



1974: United Steelworkers of America strikes at ASARCO ending with a union contract after 154 days.



1975: Corporate name changed to ASARCO inc.



1975: Injunction requires ASARCO to spend $120 Million dollars on modernization and environmental improvements.



1977: Worldwide copper surplus, spurred by developing countries producing more at a cheaper cost, causes markets to fall.



1977: Follow up study of blood levels in children living near the smelter showed levels had decreased significantly from 1972.



1979: Modernization of El Paso plant completed, reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide by nearly two- thirds from pre 1970 levels.



1980: The El Paso plant no longer processes lead, zinc, antimony or cadmium.



1983: The zinc plant closes and is demolished.



1984: ASRCO loses $56.8 Million.



1985: Lead smelting operations suspended, laying off 300.



1986: The domestic copper industry, which employed 44,000 in 1980, had only 15,000 workers in 1986.  Around the country, mines, concentrators, smelters, and refineries were being closed.



1986: The antimony and cadmium plant closes and is demolished.



1989: ASARCO board approves expansion of copper facilities at El Paso smelter    


1992: The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approves permit for ASARCO’s  $81Million plant expansion and installation of continuous top-feed oxygen process technology (CONTOP).



1993: ASARCO installs CONTOP which is meant to increase production and reduce emissions.



1994: The North American Free Trade Agreement is signed by the United States, Mexico and Canada.



1996: Two acid plants expand capacities in El Paso.



1998: The Environmental Protection Agency submits internal memo (which was not meant to become public) which condemns ASARCO’s illegal burning of hazardous waste in their El Paso plant. The memorandum states, “ this activity, plain and simple, was illegal treatment and disposal of hazardous waster…”



1999: ASARCO lays of 370 workers and announces the smelter will be closed Feb 1st, 1999 for a period of at least 3 years, due to depressed copper markets.  Fifty employees are left to maintain the plant so it can be started up quickly.  Company officials pledge to start up again when economic conditions improve.



1999: ASARCO agrees to spend 1.8Million to pave roads, alleys and parking lots in a dust-control project in El Paso, and to recycle at least 1,200 tons of scarp tires a year as part of a nationwide penalty to settle claims the company violated federal hazardous waste and clean water laws in Texas, Tennessee, and Montana.



1999: Grupo Mexico purchases ASARCO for $2.2 Billion.



2000: $10Million storm water collection and reuse system is built.



2001: All buildings no longer in use are demolished.



2001: Concerned community members, UTEP students and professors, law makers and former ASARCO employees form the Get The Lead Out Coalition working to keep communities in New Mexico, Juarez Mexico and El Paso safe from further contamination.



2002: Environmental Protection Agency identifies ASARCO as a responsible part for Lead contamination.



2002: ASARCO applies for permit renewal.



2002: Faced with copper prices at historic lows and depts. Exceeding $450Million, ASARCO schedules public auctions at its El Paso plant and at least three others in July to sell surplus equipment.



2002: ASARCO reaches environmental agreement with the Justice Department guaranteeing ASARCO has liability funds to handle violations.



2003: ASARCO and the Environmental Protection Agency install and fiduciary fund to help pay the costs of environmental cleaning.



2004: TCEQ decides to hold public hearings to examine air pollution and the history of the plant’s final three years of operation, as well as the possible risks associated with the renewal of the emissions permit.



2004: The Sierra Club funds Texas and Mexico’s bi-national efforts to address the lead contamination in the Borderlands.



2004: A total of 1,082 homes show contamination with a clean up price of about $30,000/ home.



2005, January: Faculty at University of Texas El Paso evaluate the U’s free speech and assembly on campus policies after a student-lead ASARCO protest on January 19th, 2005.



2005: ASARCO declares bankruptcy.



2005: Members of the community organization Get The Lead Out Coalition learn about the burning of waste from Encycle- a hazardous waste recycling plant.  Activists learn about this through a request for public documents which surfaced an EPA internal document which criticized ASARCO’s activities.



2006: The Get The Lead Out Coalition and other community members pressure El Paso County Attorney Jose Rodriguez to press criminal charges towards  ASARCO for illegally burned hazardous waste in a smelter from Encylce.



2006: TCEQ orders field studies to analyze plant conditions.



2007, September 23: The Get the Lead Out Coalition’s “Faces Against ASARCO” campaign brings together over 1,000 people in a visual representation of their opposition to ASARCO’s reopening.  The photograph was sent to Governor Richard Perry.



2007, November: Senator Eliot Shapleigh releases a 50 page informational guide to the history of ASARCO in El Paso.  This guide publicly denounces the plan to reopen ASARCO.



2007, December 11th: Community members hold the 3rd annual candlelight vigil at the base of  ASARCO’s smoke stack to “honor the souls who died working at the smelter and who built El Paso through this industry.”



2008, January 25th: The El Paso School District and El Paso School Board come out against the reopening of ASARCO saying that “ASARCO adversely affected the health of their school children in the past and would do it again if it reopens” (



2008, February 13th: El Paso ACORN organizes residents and representatives to travel to the Texas State Capital in Austin to protest the reopening of ASARCO at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hearing.



2008, May 31st: Governing bodies of 3 sister cities in the Borderland area discuss several issues affecting their communities, including the possible reopening of ASARCO.



2013, April 13th: Asarco smokestacks are demolished


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