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Smokestack Injustice? Toxic Texas Smelter May Reopen

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The big smokestack's red lights that flash through the night send the unmistakable message that the mothballed smelter is not dead yet. The old American Smelting and Refining Company (Asarco) copper smelter in El Paso, Texas, may have temporarily stopped spewing toxins, but it still unsettles the Paso del Norte borderlands.

Government agencies and environmental groups have blamed the 111-year- old smelter for severe air, soil and groundwater contamination. Nonetheless, on February 13, 2008 the plant was given a new lease on life when the three members of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) voted unanimously to grant Asarco a five-year air quality permit. The vote was a stinging rebuke to hundreds of border residents who had traveled to the state capital of Austin to convince TCEQ to finally shut it down.

The air permit battle is just the latest chapter in the long, controversial history of the Asarco smelter, which is currently owned by a Mexican company. Operating under a series of previous owners the plant processed lead, zinc, silver and copper between 1887 and 1999.
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