This essay updates and expands upon a previously published piece: Collins, T., S. Grineski and M. Flores. (2008). Environmental injustices in the Paso del Norte. Projections: MIT Journal of Planning 8, 156-171.
Thanks go out to Sara Grineski and Martha Flores for their contributions.
In February 2008 the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) was granted an air permit to reopen its El Paso, Texas copper smelter through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).This is a unique case because the ASARCO smelter site was located in a densely populated minority community at the junction of three states and two countries.The permit entitled the multinational corporation to emit 7,000 tons of pollution annually – including 4.7 tons of lead (more than any other facility in the US) – into an airshed shared by Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua, Mexico (TCEQ, 2007; O’Rourke, 2007; Shapleigh, 2007a). I begin this essay by situating the events surrounding the case of ASARCO in El Paso, Texas as an instance of environmental injustice and racism. Based on the case, I conclude with a discussion of lessons learned that might be applied by those seeking to contest socio-environmental exploitation and degradation in bordered spaces.
ASARCO operated the copper smelter continuously in El Paso from 1887 until 1999, when the price of copper dropped to $0.60 per pound and the smelter was mothballed to the jubilation of many Paso del Norte residents.
Until 1973, workers lived in Smeltertown, the company community located at the base of the stack. ASARCO had neglected to include this community its air pollution monitoring. In 1973, Smeltertown was razed after it was documented by non-company sources that 53% of children had lead levels considered dangerous (Landrigan et al., 1975). Research on lead poisoning among Smeltertown’s children was path breaking and helped establish the career of Dr. Philip Landrigan, a leading authority on and advocate for children’s health worldwide. All that remains of Smeltertown is the cemetery.
ASARCO has long history of toxic pollution and corporate irresponsibility in the US. The corporation has saddled citizens from 75 communities and 16 states across the country with at least $6 billion, perhaps as much as $20 billion, in environmental remediation and cleanup costs (Blumenthal, 2007; Milan, 2007). Reliable sources have reported that comprehensive cleanup (of current contamination) in the Paso del Norte would cost in excess of $250 million (Shapleigh, 2007b). If the smelter had reopened and polluted once again, estimates of remediation costs would have continued to escalate. While ASARCO’s public relations campaign for reopening the El Paso smelter incorporated a heavy dose of green rhetoric (Collins et al., 2008), the documented deleterious effects of their copper smelting on human health and the environment do not point toward a model of sustainability. Two questions arise. First, why did ASARCO want to reopen a facility that would have released 7,000 tons of pollutants known to produce adverse health effects per year in the middle of a metropolis of 3 million people? After all, ASARCO had decommissioned urban smelters in Tacoma and Omaha. ASARCO’s push to get back in the smelting business was explicitly influenced by spiking copper prices, which had risen to over $3 per pound in 2007 (Collins et al., 2008), prior to the onset of the global economic crisis. ASARCO’s desire to resume operations in the Paso del Norte, however, was also undeniably connected with the characteristics of the people in the region. According to the 2000 US Decennial Census, the vast majority of nearby US residents in the City of El Paso (El Paso County, Texas) and Sunland Park (Doña Ana County, New Mexico) were and are Hispanic (77% and 98%, respectively, compared with 13% for the US and 32% for Texas). El Paso and Sunland Park had considerably lower median household incomes ($32,124 and $20,164, respectively) than Texas ($39,927) and national levels ($41,994), and poverty rates (22% and 39%, respectively) well above the US rate (12%).
In addition, the portion of Ciudad Juárez abutting the facility is home to that metropolis’ most socially marginal neighborhoods (Ward, 1999; Frontera NorteSur, 2005).
To be sure, ASARCO’s public relations staff attempted to seize on El Paso’s relatively depressed economic conditions by packaging the reopening of the smelter in terms of job creation and economic growth, and an ASARCO-funded economic impact analysis endowed the company’s economic promises with aura of legitimacy (Collins et al., 2008). A 2007 public opinion poll suggested that ASARCO’s campaign had been successful: 50 percent of registered voters responded “yes” to the question of whether ASARCO should be allowed to re-open(Meritz, 2007). Results from a pilot survey of four El Paso neighborhoods that Sara Grineski and I carried out revealed that the majority of residents believed that ASARCO would harm health; findings also indicated that public support for ASARCO hinged on the belief that it would create jobs, regardless of corresponding beliefs about negative health effects. Local opponents of ASARCO realized that they had to be loud, and residents and elected officials from the Cities of El Paso, Sunland Park and Juárez – as well as the States of New Mexico and Chihuahua – voiced clear opposition to ASARCO’s reopening (Collins et al., 2008). Civil society groups on both sides of the border – including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Get The Lead Out Coalition (GTLO), and the Sierra Club – collaborated in protest against ASARCO’s proposed reopening (Collins et al., 2008).
In March 2007, ACORN and GTLO activists took direct action in Austin by storming the Capitol and demanding inclusion in the air permitting process.
Over the summer of 2007, ACORN canvassed local neighborhoods to inform residents of the imminent threat of the smelter and to enlist people in their petition drive to deliver local voices of opposition to Austin. During the public comment period for ASARCO’s air permit (which ended in June 2007), over 10,480 letters were submitted to the TCEQ; 9,600 letters were in opposition to, and only 880 in support of, the proposed reopening of the facility (City of El Paso, 2007). In September 2007, local groups organized a community photo entitled “Faces Against ASARCO” as part of their mobilization.
The event further catalyzed opposition against ASARCO in the Paso del Norte by bringing together a diverse range of residents, opening channels of communication, and reaffirming shared values (Flores et al., 2011).
Vociferous opposition proved to be an unsuccessful influence in the permitting process, as the decision to approve the air permit was ultimately made by three Governor Rick Perry-appointed TCEQ commissioners. This exemplifies how “current environmental decision-making practices have not been effective in providing meaningful participation opportunities for those most burdened by environmental decisions” (Cole and Foster, 2001, p. 16). Now the second question: Why did the TCEQ grant ASARCO a permit to pollute? A simple response is that the TCEQ has barely ever denied an air permit to any entity requesting one. As of 2010, more than 88,000 air permits had been pursued through the TCEQ; only 12 had been denied (a denial rate of ~0.0001%). The commission is viewed by many as a regulatory body designed to facilitate the profit motives of big industry. It must also be realized that El Paso has long been marginal in relation to the Texas’ centralized political engine, located over 500 miles away in Austin. Beyond TCEQ’s rubber-stamping approach and El Paso’s geographic marginality, it is difficult to contemplate this case without seriously considering the role of environmental racism, particularly in its institutional guise, as a factor. A predominantly working class, dark-skinned metropolitan community was engaged in a seemingly rational public debate about the prospect of opening one of the US’s single most noxious facilities in its midst (a fact that generated a sense of surrealism among visitors from other parts of the country). Residents of wealthier and whiter communities are spared the experience of being forced to engage in such debates. After the permit was granted, opponents were in a tight spot. One option involved litigation. Since ASARCO’s El Paso facility is located within a kilometer of Mexico and New Mexico, transboundary pollution would have negatively affected the primarily lower income Hispanic populations in these jurisdictions. The transnational movement of toxic pollution from the Global North to the South has received attention in the environmental justice literature (Adeola, 2000, Frey, 2003, Pellow, 2007); the ASARCO case provides an example of this trend. The fact that the air permit had been authorized in Austin, Texas and the facility would have acutely impacted adjacent state and national jurisdictions – without consent of appropriate territorial governing bodies – may have provided a fulcrum of legal leverage for ASARCO’s opponents. The La Paz Agreement of 1983, for example, is a treaty between the US and Mexico for the protection and improvement of the environment in the border area; the La Paz Agreement would appear to have been violated by the TCEQ permit. Article 2 of the Agreement mandates that the US and Mexico “undertake … to adopt the appropriate measures to prevent, reduce and eliminate sources of pollution in their respective territory which affect the border area of the other.” We will never know if that line of opposition would have been effective. In addition, the TCEQ permit pertains to air, but ASARCO’s pollution had already affected, and would have had even worse impacts on, water and soil resources to the detriment of human and ecological health. ASARCO’s facility is located within meters of the Rio Grande/Bravo, which provides irrigation water used by the region’s farmers and between 40 to 50 percent of El Paso’s drinking water.
It must be noted that ASARCO filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 2005, in order to shed liability for the costs of their dirty history in communities throughout the country. At the time the TCEQ issued the air permit, ASARCO was enmeshed in an extremely complex court case. In 2007, the US International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) filed a pre-trial brief in the bankruptcy case, which stated “continuing contamination from the ASARCO property has forced USIBWC to address the dangers of lead and arsenic in carrying out its responsibility to regulate and conserve the waters of the Rio Grande…due to the high contaminant levels that exist” (US Bankruptcy Court, 2007, p. 2). Additionally, ASARCO had already been forced to remediate soil contamination in nearby neighborhoods (based on a revised, lenient soil arsenic contamination standard). Perhaps those broader impacts on critical water and soil resources would have provided leverage for opponents, but we will never know for sure. In the end, ASARCO voluntarily withdrew their bid to reopen the El Paso smelter. While the company attributed their decision to decommission the El Paso smelter to a downturn in the copper market, other factors must have figured prominently. First, Barak Obama was elected US President and the EPA under Lisa Jackson became more focused on environmental protection. In November 2008, National Ambient Air Quality Standards for lead were revised and made more stringent (from 1.5 to 0.15 μg/m3), which must have influenced ASARCO, since meeting those standards would have forced the company to internalize pollution abatement costs. ASARCO claimed that this did not impact their decision. Second, at the same time (late 2008/early 2009), the price of copper bottomed-out as a result of the global economic crisis to just over $1 per pound. It is unlikely that this was primary factor in ASARCO’s closure decision, since market demand for copper is relatively inelastic (by February 2011 the price of copper had rebounded to $4.5 per pound; ASARCO executives must have known that copper prices would soon recover). A third factor may relate to the fact that Sterlite Industries, an Indian transnational mining corporation, had very recently agreed to purchase all of ASARCO’s assets, except for the El Paso smelter. Why that was the case remains unclear, but it is likely that Sterlite executives had knowledge of the widespread resistance to the smelter’s reopening in the Paso del Norte and consequently determined that the facility did not have a viable future. While ASARCO’s decision to permanently decommission the El Paso smelter sparked celebration for many residents in the Paso del Norte, a fundamental question must be asked: Was environmental justice achieved? Despite a shared sense of victory among activists who fought against ASARCO, “No” would be the only forthcoming response from balanced observers. The most obvious reason for this answer is that the environment surrounding the smelter is still highly toxic and will remain so for centuries. As an outcome of ASARCO’s bankruptcy case, a trust is currently handling remediation of the site. The trust received $52 million from ASARCO for remediation, which reliable sources estimate is at best 20% of what a comprehensive clean-up would cost. The remediation plan is to be carried out over 400-500 years, which, given the lack of adequate funds, raises issues of intergenerational injustice since ASARCO’s contamination will compromise conditions for future generations. The environmental injustices implicated in ASARCO’s proposed reopening of their El Paso copper smelter were many. The lead emissions would have been most damaging to young children and pregnant women. El Paso is one of the poorest cities in the US with a majority-minority population that lacks power within the state of Texas and is socially marginal within the US context. Located on the edge of the Global North, residents of semi-peripheral Mexico would have been unfairly impacted without receiving any benefits. The glaring problem with the search for justice in this case, however, is that the relatively positive outcome was purely serendipitous. To learn more broadly applicable lessons, we have to ask a basic question: Will shifting political winds, economic recessions or other vagaries of the global marketplace consistently yield socially and environmentally just outcomes? Clearly not. In fact, economic crises in Mexico, such as the so-called Tequila Crisis in 1994, have tended to worsen transnational environmental injustices (for example, those associated with the maquiladora sector). In order to achieve more sustainable outcomes everywhere, people must demand, create and protect decision-making processes that are genuinely inclusive and environmentally just. In bordered spaces, such as the Paso del Norte, what particular challenges must be tackled? First, despite the fact that the smelter site was located within a stone’s throw of two countries and three states, a bordered governance framework was manipulated by ASARCO and Texas state authorities to facilitate corporate profiteering at potentially great socio-environmental cost. This instrumental use of bordered decision-making authority not only belied the obvious realities of transboundary impacts, but also the multiple forms of social and ecological degradation that would occur to the surrounding US-Mexican environment (since the permit to resume smelting only applied to air quality in Texas). The bounding of decision-making authority as part of an accumulation strategy to capitalize on cross-border value differentials is of broad concern in bordered spaces, since the exploitation of transboundary socio-environments in such contexts may simultaneously present attractive economic opportunities and be quite difficult to effectively challenge. In this case, the approach was successful in circumventing widespread and vociferous resistance. Since I was involved in the local fight against ASARCO in the Paso del Norte, in retrospect I believe that too little attention by activists was focused on the deep injustice of this narrowly-bounded governance framework. This relates to a second challenge in bordered spaces: Organizing effective opposition to socio-environmental exploitation and degradation. In the Paso del Norte, opponents to the re-opening of the ASARCO smelter coalesced primarily around an ‘anti-toxics’ frame that privileged people’s concerns about environmental health impacts. This frame limited opposition in a few regards. One, it enabled ASARCO to rather easily drive a discursive wedge between the interests of workers (and those concerned primarily with improving the perennially depressed local labor market) and environmentalists (including those primarily concerned with environmental health impacts). Of course, the aggregate economic impact of resuming copper smelting on a large scale in the midst of a bi-national metropolitan area of 3 million people was bound to be negative. This dirty nineteenth century industrial process is broadly antithetical to the goal of expanding the knowledge economy and it would have suppressed employment growth over the mid-to-long-term. The reality that ASARCO’s reopening would have had generally negative economic impacts in the Paso del Norte was not apparent to many area residents, partly because the issue had been quite successfully framed as a ‘jobs vs. environment’ trade-off. Opponents of ASARCO unintentionally legitimated this discursive frame; indeed, they could not easily see beyond it. Anti-ASARCO activist-leaders perpetuated this frame, apparently because they believed it reflected the reality of the situation. Statements from ASARCO’s opponents acknowledging that ‘the economic gains are not worth the environmental and health costs’ reverberated in everyday conversations and at activist meetings, and they were circulated through local media outlets. Not surprisingly, many seemingly rational residents supported ASARCO’s reopening because they felt that the economic benefits outweighed the environmental health costs, based on the erroneous assumption that an economic growth vs. environmental health trade-off was at stake. To achieve greater success, those concerned with human-environmental exploitation and degradation in bordered spaces must strive to unite environmental and labor movement organizing. This connection should based on the shared recognition that most projects presented as economic development opportunities in bordered spaces are in fact highly exploitative of both ecological environments and working residents. Indeed, this recognition is foundational to the environmental justice movement. Unfortunately, opponents of ASARCO in El Paso did not organize and act based on an environmental justice frame. In the end, greater leverage and broader-based support could have been achieved if opponents had based their campaign more prominently upon claims of environmental injustice. In sum, the environmental justice frame should be more broadly embraced by social movement organizations in bordered spaces to oppose projects founded upon socio-environmental exploitation and degradation.
Tim Collins is an Associate Professor of Geography in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso. His research interests include urban political ecology, social vulnerability, environmental justice, and health disparities. He can be reached via Phone: 915-747-6526; or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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