Case Study 1: The El Paso Smelter

Compiled and modified for instructional use by: Kate Darby, Western Washington University

In 1887, Robert Towne built a metals smelter two and a half miles northwest of El Paso, Texas, across the river from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico and across the state border from several small towns in New Mexico. The smelter, which processed metal ore from regional mines, was quickly acquired by ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company) and became an important visual and economic institution in the region. In 1967, following the mantra of environmental regulation at the time—"the solution to pollution is dilution"—ASARCO erected what was then the tallest smokestack in the world: an 828-foot structure visible from much of the region. While the facility provided jobs to many in the region and produced metals important for a range of manufacturing and consumer products, by the 1970s, residents and scientists began to question the other products from the smelter—especially heavy metals pollution.

ASARCO owned and maintained land adjacent to the smelter; this area was called Smeltertown and was home to thousands of residents at its peak, and a few hundred in the early 1970s. Two of the earliest studies of their kind in the world discovered elevated blood lead levels in children living in Smeltertown. As a result of this finding, by 1973 all of the residents of Smeltertown had been forced out, and the broader Paso del Norte community began to pay more attention to lead and arsenic contamination. These heavy metals tend to settle in soils, though there is some connectivity between soil, air, and water contamination. Both lead and arsenic create serious health problems in children, who often ingest particles while playing outside or from indoor dust. Remediation of contaminated soils is very costly and difficult; in most cases, contaminated soil must be physically removed and replaced with clean soil.

In 1999, ASARCO temporarily closed the smelter, ostensibly due to decreasing copper prices. At this time, activists began taking a closer look at heavy metals contamination outside of Smeltertown, especially in the residential areas of El Paso surrounding the smelter. Eventually, this prompted governmental action. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spearheaded residential cleanup efforts in El Paso through programs created by the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). Also known as Superfund, CERCLA establishes procedures for cleanup issues associated with abandoned hazardous waste activities. When abandoned industrial areas are designated as Superfund sites under CERCLA, they are added to the National Priorities List (NPL), which includes the most serious hazardous waste cleanup sites. CERCLA also designates funds for hazard removal actions for sites needing immediate (within six months) cleanup response; the off-site cleanup in El Paso was funded partially through this immediate cleanup program. As part of the requirements laid out in CERCLA, the EPA collected data to determine the extent of contamination to prioritize cleanup efforts.

Discussion Questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • What might have caused the problem?
  • What data would you want to assess to address the problem?

Data Sources for Group Analysis and Presentation Activity:

The following data sources each provide information about lead and arsenic contamination in the El Paso del Norte region.

  1. Sierra Club Report: This report, prepared for the environmental organization the Sierra Club by an independent scientist, documents data on soil contamination in the El Paso region. Sierra Club Report
  2. EPA Report: In 2001, the US Army Corps of Engineers (Tulsa District) prepared this report for the US EPA (Region 6, Dallas) as part of the CERCLA process to assess lead and arsenic contamination in the soils of residential areas surrounding the smelting facility. Table 3 provides a summary of the lead and arsenic sample data. El Paso and Dona Ana County Metals Report (Acrobat (PDF) 364kB Jun26 14)
  3. Resident Accounts: Residents and activists shared their stories about the site in a series of interviews conducted by Kate Darby from 2007–2009; this document includes brief excerpts from some of them. Interviews with El Paso del Norte Residents (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 192kB May17 16)
  4. Photographs of site: Smelter Images (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 6.2MB Aug16 14)
  5. El Paso del Norte Map (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 2.9MB Aug16 14): 2000 US Census, 2000 INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía), Paso del Norte Mapa, 1999 US EPA Toxic Release Inventory

Post-Group Analysis/Presentation Reflection:

Revisit CERCLA/Superfund process and describe how and what data were used to do the cleanup. What areas were cleaned up El Paso and Dona Ana County Metals Cleanup Map (Acrobat (PDF) 317kB Jun26 14)?

  1. What data were actually used to make decisions about cleanup?
  2. What data were excluded? Why do you think the EPA chose to use the data it did?

Additional resources:

  • Darby, K. J. (2012). Lead astray: Scale, environmental justice and the El Paso smelter. Local Environment, 17(8), 797–814.
  • Shapleigh, E. (2008). ASARCO in El Paso. 'Moving to a Bright Future—Away from a Polluted Past'. Retrieved from
  • US EPA Envirofacts map and data - (Enter "El Paso, TX" in search box.)