Friday, January 25, 2013

Asarco Trustee Puga to Speak at UTEP


"Former ASARCO Smelter Site - Remediation Challenges 
and Project End Vision"

Roberto Puga, P.G., Site Custodial Trustee Project Navigator, Ltd.

6:30 p.m. Meet and greet; 7:00 p.m. Presentation

Centennial Museum, UTEP Campus,
500 W. University Ave., El Paso (Map)

Campus gates open at 5:30 pm.

All are welcome.

For more information call:
Laurence 309-5419 or Liz 915-342-7630

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Preferred Park Entrance Presented to City Council Today

Dr. Cesar Mendez, Franklin Mountains State Park Superintendent, gave the following presentation to the El Paso City Council today.

Corky Kuhlmann of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also was on hand to brief City Council members.

Please support TX Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) desire to transfer 8 acres to TxDOT so that TxDOT can build a safe entrance with a wildlife crossing and minimal environmental and viewshed destruction.  The 8 acres will serve the Park, but TxDOT will maintain the turn lanes and wildlife crossings. Send your comments in support of this transfer to:  Corky Kuhlmann, Land Conservation, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 4200 Smith School Road, Austin, Texas 78744 or,   not later than tomorrow, January 23, 2013.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Don't Blow Your Stack, Part 2

Parker Brothers Arroyo - will contained contaminants one day leak out and 'cross the street' to the Rio Grande and El Paso drinking water?

Many conscientious, intelligent, reasonable members of El Paso's environmental community have argued for a long time now that the Asarco stacks should come down. They believe that razing them can be done without releasing any dangerous contaminants into the environment and any pollutants still remaining can be remediated or forever contained on site in a way that will never affect the health and welfare of the general public. They certainly don't agree that the stacks can ever be anything but reminders of a history of pollution and ill health even if not a puff of smoke will ever again come out of those chimneys.  Many of these people are friends or colleagues whose friendships and opinions I value. Among them is Peggy McNiel who took time to research for elpasonaturally the reasons for bringing the stacks down. I'm grateful to her for her work and her patience as she has waited two months now for me to publish what she found out. What follows is her report to me. Afterwards some rebuttal from others.  First Peggy:

"Here are a few follow-up comments to the discussion of the Asarco smokestacks.

"You are right about one point in my opinion, TCEQ has always wanted to demolish the smokestacks as part of their original remediation plan for the sight.  The same is true of the EPA in Tacoma, Washington and the Omaha, Nebraska site.  In all three areas clearing the smokestacks was part of the plan to rid the sites of toxic materials.

"The Expert Report, Estimation of Costs to PerformClean-Up at Asarco, April,2009 is available on the TCEQ website.  In it there is a section in the plan called, Demolition of Structures.

"'Since the plant has ceased operations, the reuse of existing buildings and structures is unlikely because different operations require different structure and building specifications. The lack of routine maintenance will accelerate the deterioration of the buildings and structures.  The deterioration of the structures will pose a hazard to any unauthorized persons and, as is the case with the smokestacks and the bridge over I-10, will pose a direct hazard to the public.

"'Demolition of the existing buildings and structures is the most cost effective remedy for long term care of the facility.  Demolition will also allow TCEQ to address any contamination under such buildings and structures. 

"'The TCEQ proposes to remove all buildings and structures at the site.'

"Demolition of the structures was the first item on the $52 million budget.

"From a letter from the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club to the Assistant Attorney General, Environmental and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington D.C. as part of the Public Comments:
'11. The entire large 828 stack and other stacks need to be regarded as Toxic Waste...'

"From reading the TCEQ's documents, it is quite clear to the reader that the demolition of the stacks was well thought out by the TCEQ.  The cost estimate was intensely evaluated with consideration given to the process and indeed was the first task listed in the itemized remediation budget.

"Yet, the TCEQ and the EPA in coordination with Puga continued their evaluation and sought community input before making a decision.  This debate went on for at least 3 years.  So I don't think we can say that TCEQ, the EPA and Puga made this decision lightly.

"Those of us who wanted Puga to stick by his original deadline of Nov. 2011 were furious with him for extending the deadline by 1 year and then another month. 

"However, Puga outlined what conditions had to be met and the cost to safely leave the stacks standing.  These conditions were not met and the money was not available to properly maintain the stacks no matter how many times the Save the Stacks group and Susie Byrd hurled insulting accusations at Puga.

"We need only talk to Ms. Leslie Rose of Tacoma, Washington for an informed,experienced opinion. She is the on site manager for Citizens for a healthy bay. When I asked her which is better--to leave the stacks up or demolish them, she practically jumped through the phone to say,'Controlled demolition is safer than leaving the stacks up and not properly maintaining them.'  She asks why would you want to leave the stacks as a liability for future generations.  The Tacoma stacks were demolished according to their EPA directed remediation plan.  They were buried on site in much the same type of design planned for the El Paso site which is a combination of geosynthetic clay liner (GCL) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) geomembrane and a geocomposite drainage layer.  The combination will create a nearly impermeable barrier surrounding the buried material.

"Rose told me that in 10 years they have been through 2 earthquakes and lots and lots of rain.  Any moisture at the bottom is pumped out and the contaminant levels are going down.

"She went on to say that if the stacks remain, someone is always responsible for maintenance.  An uncontrolled,unplanned failure of the stacks could be catastrophic and end up killing people. 

"Also, she offered that if the stack had remained, no one would buy the property---the same objection reported by Puga. 

"She also talked about the workers and said there are many ways to honor the workers rather that leaving up stacks which may kill someone in the future.  That is no way to honor the workers.

"I agree with her. I don't think leaving a toxic stack is anyway to memorialize anyone." - Peggy McNiel

On the other hand, preservationists with Save the Stacks make the following rebuttals:

Dr. Paul Maxwell, the Executive Director and CEO of the Bin-National Sustainability Laboratory, writes:

"It seems to me Peggy is comparing apples and oranges on a number of fronts here. First of all there is a major difference in looking at the geology and geography of Tacoma, Washington and El Paso, Texas. Without knowing the specific details I think it obvious that the soils, strata and geological structure would be vastly different from each site. Ditto regarding subterranean and surface waters and their movements.   Specific to the El Paso site is the fact that the stacks sit next to a major arroyo that was filled in over the hundred years or more of the smelters operation. Puga is now 'mining' this arroyo and appears to look at refilling this natural water way with the remains of the stacks. Despite man's hubris that they can bend the will of nature our own recent experience with local flooding with 'hundreds year' rains suggests the arroyo will likely continue to be a point for major movement of any waste products buried there with the Rio Grande river and lower valley the likely recipients of any leachants. Far better the stacks be kept intact where we can easily monitor any 'toxicity' associated with them rather than bury them where they will pose much more of a danger. A second contrast is regarding the stability of the stacks in seismically active regions. For Tacoma which sits on one of worlds most seismically active regions ( the Pacific's infamous 'Ring of Fire') where earthquakes of Richter scale 5, 6, or higher are not uncommon or unusual removal of such stacks may make sense. This is not the case here where earthquakes rarely if ever reach beyond the 1 or 2 Richter scale levels (UTEP's Doser can provide more specifics). There are active volcanoes in Washington!  Our last volcanic event was 10' s of thousands of years ago. 

"Another point-- we are not proposing little or no maintenance of the stacks but rather a plan that goes out at least 50 years. More to the point our analysis shows that the stacks after close to 50 years are stable and enduring and not now and not ever likely to pose any danger of falling as suggested by Peggy or her colleagues. 

"Finally, her point that destruction of the stacks was well thought out because they were considered early in the process to be destroyed is hardly supportive since there was no engineering analysis to support the conclusion they should be destroyed in the first place. Rather these early conclusions show they were unduly biased to destroy these stacks rather than consider any alternative."

Mr. Geoffrey Wright, a well-known El Paso Architect, chimes in:

"That the TCEQ has 'always wanted to demolish the smokestacks' is hardly an argument for their removal.  It points more to a foregone conclusion that fails to take into account the actual physical condition of what was once the tallest chimney in the world and which, after nearly 50 years of existence, shows virtually no signs of deterioration.  

"This pre-determined death sentence also fails to take into account any cultural or historic value of this extraordinary structure nor the will of the people of El Paso who in public opinion polls show nearly 70% of the people want to keep the stack in place. [It's under 50% if they have to pay for it.] It also ignores the willful destruction of for the tallest monument in the United States with an estimated replacement value of $15mm to $20mm. 

"Save the Stacks believes we have met the technical aspects of the environmental custodian. We also believe we are well on our way to meeting the requirement for the ongoing liability issue with active support from the Mayor of El Paso, City Council members, the State Senator, and the Congressman-elect, all of whom have expressed to Mr Puga their desire to save the stacks.

"We have yet to see any evidence that the site is less valuable with the stack in place than without it.  There are numerous examples of sites across the United States where communities have honored their industrial heritage with successful commercial developments that maintain obsolete industrial structures.  Common sense tells any open-minded person that the advertising value alone of the structure is tremendous.

"The time to save the stack is now.  Once it is gone, a $20 million asset will be gone forever and a great opportunity to move our great city forward will be lost."

There you have it - a disagreement between reasonable, good and intelligent people. The last part of this series will deal with the dirtier question - just how nasty is the site. The appeal of an historic, cultural and potential commercial landmark is enticing. But how contaminated is the site and has Puga really come clean? For the sake of the public's health, safety and welfare  can it hurt to ask and to wait a bit longer? The engineering study shows the stacks to be strong, straight and solid anyway.  Besides, we still haven't heard back from Attorney General Greg Abbott. One hopes that Mr. Puga, who has shown restraint so far, will continue to do so as unanswered questions get answered.

Don't Blow Your Stack, Part 1

Where do things stand now regarding the Asarco stacks or stack? Quick review: Robert Ardovino wrote an excellent editorial published here on November 26, 2012 prior to City Council issuing its opinion. One of my favorite  quotes from the editorial was from the trustee, Roberto Puga, himself. He said: "The stacks are, I think, an important cultural icon in El Paso." Keep that quote in mind as you read further.

Mr. Ardovino's argument to save the stack(s) was based on a very trustworthy engineering report that the stacks are "strong, straight and solid".

On November 27, 2012, City Council voted to save the stacks as long as they did not have to spend any money. It has been contended since then that Puga has the authority to give the stacks and land to the City rather than holding the City hostage for millions of dollars if it wants to save the stacks.

So here is what has happened post 11/27/12 bringing you up to now:  

Not long after the City Council vote, prominent El Paso leaders met in Mayor Cook's office and placed a call to Mr. Puga and his attorneys.  Present along with Save the Stack leaders Robert Ardovino and Jeffrey Wright and journalist, Sito Negron, were Mayor John Cook, Rep. Steve Ortega, U.S. Rep.-elect Beto O'Rourke and State Senator Jose Rodriguez. They urged Mr. Puga to donate the land to the City and contended that Puga has the discretion to do so. Puga contended that he must sell everything and he continued to claim that no one will buy the land with the stacks standing.

Senator Rodriguez has asked for an opinion from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott whether Puga has the discretion to donate the land.  Keep in mind that the Senator is very environmentally friendly. His Environmental Advisory Committee is wall to wall environmentalists/conservationists.  Dr. Richard Teschner is the chairman. (Disclaimer: I recently was awarded a certificate for serving on this Committee.)

Puga's company, Project Navigator Ltd, benefits more when Puga gets more money. To turn the site over to the City now would curtail how much more Project Navigator makes and how much more Roberto Puga himself makes. As one Save the Stack person told me: "There was no chance in hell that Puga was ever going to keep the stacks up." 

It is rumored that one possible land buyer would play war games on the site - real war games not elaborate paint ball. Imagine the consequences of a volley falling on UTEP or . . . Mexico!  The stacks no longer belch, they are strong, straight and solid so why, Ardovino wonders, risk bringing them down during El Paso's windiest season using an untested $650,000 misting system?

Preservatonists for the most part argue that the stacks (or stack - most concede now that it may be only possible to save the larger of the two) are historic landmarks and monuments and treated properly would make valuable attractions. It is pretty much common sense that, such a prominent landmark, could be commercially beneficial in spite of what Mr. Puga proclaims.

On the other hand, environmentalists, seem to be split into two camps: those who believe that it is best to tear them down and, if really, truly possible, contain the contaminants permanently. The risk of an environmental catastrophe just doesn't make sense. The other camp says that the risk to the environment is much greater if the stacks are brought down. Among those who want to keep these strong, straight and solid structures standing are those who also see the positive in their becoming landmarks. However, some who want to keep them standing, do so because the contamination would be too great to bring them down and, in fact, the contamination of the land now is too great to contemplate ever remediating and developing the land.

In my next post, I'll discuss the arguments for and against keeping them standing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

New Proposal for Entrance to State Park

Altenative 4. Click on image to enlarge.

Last July, the PSB proposed and recommended to City Council an alternative route into the Tom Mays Unit of the Franklin Mountains State Park.  I published a blog post about this. There was another alternative entrance which the environmental community seemed to favor – an underpass with exchanges near the current park entrance. I voiced two concerns about that proposal: what it might do to the view shed and whether animals would really use a trafficked road for a corridor.  It turns out that that proposal (#4 in the TxDOT menu of options) was the one preferred by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department although that endorsement was not apparent at the time.

Last Friday, Special Parks and Wildlife Assistant Kevin Good was in El Paso to promote the alternative (#4) preferred by his department. He presented a proposal to gift 8 acres of Franklin Mountains State Park to TxDOT.  This land runs along Transmountain Road and includes the current entrance into the park.  The transfer will allow TxDOT to build an underpass with exchanges into the park.  It does not compromise the view shed and the underpass will be wide enough for traffic, bicyclists and, yes, animals. In addition, the 3 existing culverts just east of the park entrance will be preserved and the 8 foot drop-off on the south end of the culverts will be fixed so that there will be yet another corridor for animals.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission will consider an action item (number 18 on the agenda) transferring the land at its January 24, 2013 meeting in Austin. 

The proposal by Texas Parks and Wildlife seemed to catch everyone off guard. PSB representatives at the Good presentation were concerned that this alternative proposal would mean changing how they are envisioning development north of Transmountain (an interesting but not surprising revelation.) I asked if a road to the planned resort could still be constructed and keep a trail from there into the park. (The trail already exists as part of the Lower Sunset hiking trail.) There seemed to be no objection. Alternative #4 would not prevent plans for development above Transmountain.  Note that one of the disadvantages of paving an alternative entrance from a future Paseo del Norte into the park is the fact that valuable archaeological sites would be destroyed or damaged. Parks is reluctant to say much about the existence, whereabouts or artifacts of the site. However, I have learned that there may be a burial site making preservation a must.

Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition Board member, Judy Ackerman, is sending out the following to FMWC members to encourage them to voice their approval to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission no later than January 23rd:

The entrance to the Tom May’s Section of the Franklin Mountains State Park (FMSP) desperately needs improvement! 

Please support TX Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) desire to transfer 8 acres to TxDOT so that TxDOT can build a safe, entrance, with a wildlife crossing and minimal environmental and view shed destruction.  Send your comments in support of this transfer to:  Corky Kuhlmann, Land Conservation, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 4200 Smith School Road, Austin, Texas  78744 or, not later than 23 Jan 2013.  

A direct entrance to FMSP from Transmountain Rd with an underpass under Transmountain Rd is the best option.  Unfortunately, in July 2012, several El Paso institutions voted to support a Back Door entrance that is NOT supported by TPWD.  The Back Door requires building many miles of roads through pristine Chihuahuan Desert terrain, causes massive habitat destruction and fragmentation, damages archaeological sites and creates NO wildlife corridor. 

Reasons to support TPWD transfer of  8 acres to TxDOT for a new FMSP Entrance:

#1.  Who knows what is best for the Park?  TPWD and FMSP personnel!  What they support, we should support.

#2.  Ensures SAFE access to FMSP for vehicles, pedestrians, bikes and wildlife. 

#3.  Leaves FMSP’s richest archaeological site undisturbed.

#4.  We need a world class entrance to a world class Park, NOT a Back Door.

Finally, keep up with the water wars. Texas has now filed a complaint against New Mexico regarding how New Mexico is tapping into Rio Grande water north of El Paso. We are affected. So are our friends and families in Mexico.

Monday, January 14, 2013

PSB Forms Water Smart Home Advisory Committee

There’s important news at the bottom of this letter.

First – some congratulations are in order.  Mr. Henry Gallardo joins the PSB. He takes over the “General Business Management” seat previously held by Ms. Maria Teran. We certainly thank Ms. Teran for her many years of service. Mr. Gallardo’s online bio is brief but he has been quite involved in our community. He is the incoming Board Chairman for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; he’s an Executive Board Member on the Foundation for the Diocese of El Paso; Gallardo is a current member of the Paso del Norte Group and works with the Boys & Girls Club. This list is just the start. “I am a lifelong El Pasoan who is deeply committed to the long term success of our community,” Gallardo says.

Congratulations also to the new officers of the PSB: Richard T. Schoephoerster, Chairman; Katherine Brennand, Vice Chairwoman; and David Nemir, Secretary Treasurer. Again, many thanks to former chairman, Ed Escudero, who opened things up to the public –especially the conservation community. That brought about increased understanding on both sides. Dr. Schoephoerster voiced a desire to work with me – but, by that, I’m sure he meant those with more environmental/open space concerns. Dittos back to him.

The PSB is taking application to fill the Financial Management seat vacated by Mr. Escudero.

By the way, why is there no Environmental/Conservation seat on the PSB? Shouldn’t there be one? Hmmm?

Perhaps the most important action taken by the PSB was the appointment of a Water Smart Home Committee.  The work of this committee represents the ongoing conservation legacy of Ed Archuleta who proposed this idea at the last two PSB strategic planning meetings.  He  introduced the presentation given by Ms. Christina Montoya. Wednesday’s meeting was the last Mr. Archuleta will attend as President/CEO. John Balliew now officially leads the water utility. The Committee will identify water saving technologies, devices and appliances or methods for the home; identify implementation challenges with city codes and requirements; and prepare a final report for the PSB and City Council.

Here is the presentation with a list of members:

Katherine Brennand recommended adding Jennifer Barr. I also was surprised not to see Jennifer’s name on the original list. I was also looking for Katie Updike and Dr. John Walton, an engineer, hydrologist and UTEP professor who has personally made home and landscaping improvements for rainwater management at his residence. He wrote the local book on the subject shall we say.

Meetings are tentatively scheduled for Mondays, February 18, March 4 and 11 from 6 to 8 p.m. TecH2O will be the venue. The meetings will be opened to the public.

Bill Hoover, the President of the local El Paso chapter of Texas Master Naturalists, sent out word about a new rain garden smart phone app. Speaking of Master Naturalists, training to be one starts very soon. Find out how, why, when and where.

Do check out a new camp, home and garden store: Reliance Outdoor Supply. It has camp gear, survival gear, rainwater harvesting equipment, hydroponics (soon), and food storage solutions. It’s located at 1060 Doniphan Park Circle, Suite F at Doniphan and Sunland Park.  (Map)

Finally, in the next few days you will receive two or three more e-letters which will include updates about the Asarco stack and the entrance into the Tom Mays Unit of the FMSP.  I will be catching up with you this week. I apologize for the gaps between publications. As most of you have probably heard or read, I am running for the District 2 City Council seat. I will be sending out an official announcement before too long. I’m already discovering that I have less time for all my projects because of this new and exciting endeavor. I’ll do the best that I can though to keep you informed and updated with news you don’t usually get in the mass media.  The El Paso Hiker e-letter will get rolled into this one for a while. Please keep visiting elpasonaturally. I post new things there more frequently than I write this e-letter. Thank you for supporting and advocating sustainability and conservation here in the greater El Paso southwest region of our beautiful Chihuahuan Desert.  We may be into the third week of the year. Nevertheless, may each of you have a very happy, prosperous and healthy 2013.

Rain Garden Smart Phone App

Bill Hoover, the President of the Trans-Pecos Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists, forwarded this "goody":

"The UConn Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR) has developed a Rain Garden smart phone app that is now available for download from iTunes.

The app is targeted to homeowners and contractors, and leads the user through the proper siting, sizing, construction, planting and maintenance of a rain garden.  It includes nifty tools ot help the user figure out the proper size of the garden, find out about local soil conditions, get a handle on the price of construction, and customize a plant list that will delight the eye while soaking up stormwater. In addition, there are 6 short video segments explaining various aspects of rain garden care and feeding.

The app is only for iPhones at the moment, but we will have an Android version out soon.  Also the imagery and plants are specific to CT, but we are starting work on a national version that will have extensive databases for each area of the country. (If any of you are interested in helping us expand these tools, please let us know.)"

Go directly to the App's info page on the iTunes store.

David Dickson
National NEMO Coordinator & Extension Educator
Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR)
UConn College of Ag & Natural Resources
Department of Extension
P.O. Box 70 
Haddam, CT 06438
860- 345-5228

Sunday, January 13, 2013

First Day Hikes at FMSP a Success

Pictures below are courtesy of Dr. Cesar Mendez, Park Superintendent of the Franklin Mountains State Park:

Check This Place Out!

Here's the press release:

Click on image to enlarge.

They will be getting their aquaponics equipment in soon.  Visit the web site and . . . oh . . . be sure to ask for a copy of Miki Cutler's mystery book, Shinan's Way. You will get a better deal at the store than on Amazon.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Become a Texas Master Naturalist

Master Naturalist Class on field trip to Hueco Tanks.

Become a Texas Master Naturalist. The program consists of one night per week class (6-9 on Wed.) with several Saturday morning field trips. Applications for the Trans-Pecos Chapter training class are now being accepted. The class begins February 13th and meets once a week on Wednesday evenings from 6 to 9 p.m. until late May at the El Paso Garden Center, 3105 Grant Avenue. (Map)   There are also several Saturday morning field trips. 

"This is a great way to learn more about the outdoors that we all love, while giving you a path to contribute to the future of our region," Chapter member Bob Vines tells us.

Persons interested will be trained by experts in urban ecology, geology, botany, mammology, invertebrate biology, ornithology, archaeology, soils, climate and more - all geared to our Chihuahuan Desert enviroment and eco-systems.

The Trans-Pecos Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists is dedicated to protecting and preserving what makes West Texas so special – our mountains and desert and the abundant animal and plant life.

Testing water at Ascarate Lake

The Texas program of Master Naturalists is the highest rated naturalist program in the United States.  It consists entirely of volunteers who help park rangers and other professionals protect and show off our unique part of the world.  Almost everywhere there is a local outdoor event, you will find a Master Naturalist giving interpretive nature talks, leading hikes, clearing the trails or just making sure that the gate is open.

Texas Master Naturalists annually contribute more than 20,000 volunteer hours to the state.  The program is jointly sponsored by Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. 

Becoming a Naturalist involves participating in the annual training program and then agreeing to commit 40 hours per year along with just 8 hours of advanced training.

For more information, please contact:

Matthew Santillan

Texas AgriLife Extension Service

Or apply:

Also visit the Trans-Pecos Master Naturalists on Facebook.

By the way, yours truly is a Texas Master Naturalist - certified - kid you not.