EL PASO, Texas – People in this West Texas city spent decades trying to close a massive copper plant they said spewed fumes that made their eyes teary, their lungs burn. Workers got sick and blamed the company. A hill near a college campus gradually turned black as the towering smokestacks churned out heavy emissions year after year.
The people claimed victory when the ASARCO copper smelter finally shut down in 1999. Now, more than a decade later, some who opposed the plant are banding together in a long-shot effort to prevent the demolition of the plant's iconic smokestacks that have dominated the local skyline for nearly half a century. The chimneys, they say, are a mark of the city's industrial heritage and should be preserved as a monument to workers who fell ill due to toxic materials incinerated at the sprawling site.
"I want them to stay as a reminder that people in a democracy can stand up like David to Goliath and win," said Daniel Arellano, a former acid plant operator who suffers from myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood and bone marrow disease, after working at the plant from 1975-1999.
Arellano is among a group of former workers and residents who are supporting the cause of Save the Stacks, a group dedicated to raising money to purchase the site before the towers are demolished in early 2013. But the trustee in charge of cleaning and selling the 153-acre property said he has given the group enough time to raise the funds and has already made up his mind to tear down the last remaining pieces.
Still, the group believes there is a chance to save the hulking towers and turn them into the nation's tallest monument. Standing at more than 820 feet, the tallest chimney took 29 days of round the clock concrete pouring to build and rises higher than the Washington Monument or the St. Louis Arch.
"They want to wipe away our history," said Robert Ardovino, a member of Save the Stacks. "As a city we deserve something good to come from it and a giant slab of asphalt and a box store is not it."
The towers' red and white stripes and ASARCO sign can be seen from miles away amid the mountains near the Mexican border. They were a significant addition in 1966 to a copper smelter that opened in 1887 at the banks of the Rio Grande.
It operated for more than a century until it was shut down amid complaints of polluting the area while incinerating materials from a military facility that produced chemical weapons from World War II. ASARCO filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and four years later placed $52 million in a trust to clean up the area.
The towers were to be demolished last spring but the trustee granted a one-year moratorium so Save the Stacks could have time to raise money and show the structures were stable. They still have a long way to go to raise enough funds. They have collected less than $40,000 and estimate it would cost about $3.9 million to keep the smokestacks standing. The group also failed to get any financial backing from the city, which instead passed a resolution supporting the group's mission as long as it does not mean spending public money.
The trustee, Roberto Puga, said he now has no choice but to tear down the towers because potential buyers don't want them there. He said it would cost about $14 million to insure, update and maintain the stacks over 50 years and doubts the group will ever find the money.
"If there was a guardian angel that said, `I'll write you a big check,' he would have done it by now," Puga said.
Still, Save the Stacks isn't ready to give up. The group has recruited public officials to help convince Puga to save the smokestacks.
"We will talk with him and continue to talk with him until he pushes the button," Ardovino said.
The towers are surrounded by the University of Texas at El Paso and an empty stretch of desert being developed with upscale apartments. The plant's construction more than a century ago ushered in an era of industry in El Paso that eventually expanded into businesses such as apparel factories and other types of assembly plants. The plant also helped grow many other businesses such as utility companies and railroads and brought good-paying jobs to the area.
"People came for a better way of life," said local historian Jackson Polk. "There was a good middle class, now kids from a smelter town could go to college. But it also brought dangers."
The memory of those dangers has some in this community divided on whether the towers should stay or go.
Alice Delgadillo, who works at a supermarket, wants Puga to push ahead with the demolition.
"If they don't serve a purpose, why have them?" she said.
Others, such as Juan Cameros, are more sentimental.
"It will be very sad for the people of El Paso if they bring them down. For the families of the men that worked there," he said while at a local Laundromat. "I had a teacher, her father worked for many years to provide for his family. It would be sad for everyone."
Mariana Chew, an activist working with the former ASARCO workers, wants the site turned into a museum and a center for environmental studies. She also wants to create a fund to address the health issues and medical expenses of the former workers.
But for most workers, pursuing more money in the courts is not worth their while since the company has filed for bankruptcy and is likely to offer a minimal payout.
They say that's why preserving the towers is so vital for them.
"That's the gun right there," Arellano said, looking up at the towers. "They want to throw away the smoking gun."