FNS Special Feature: What’s Killing El Paso’s Historic Workers?

May 7, 2015

Editor’s Note: Frontera NorteSur resumes our special series on issues connected to the former Asarco smelter in El Paso, Texas. Today’s story is the first part of a report on health problems experienced by former plant employees. This series was made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

May 6, 2015

Charlie, Dan and Efren are down-to-earth guys.  They are friendly fellows you might want to tag along with on a fishing trip or to a baseball game. But the men are also the deep historians of El Paso, Texas. In their lives swim memories of Buena Vista, Calaveras, Flashlight and the now-razed Smeltertown—predominantly Mexican and Chicano communities that developed on the western edges of El Paso when the U.S. border city was an industrial center.

“These are little Asarco towns,” says Dan Arellano, after showing off old newspapers. Arellano and friends are part of the last generation of workers that was employed at the old American Smelter and Refining Company (Asarco) plant in El Paso.

A U.S. Army veteran who likes motorcycles and the Dallas Cowboys, Charlie Rodriguez worked as an electrician at Asarco from 1972 until the smelter shut down in 1999. While at Asarco, he served as an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers representative.

A few years Rodriguez’s junior, Arellano was employed at Asarco from 1975 to 1999. Now complaining of multiple illnesses, both men point to their years at the smelter.

“I take about eight pills a day. I just can’t do anything. I try to stay active because if I sit down it’s like kicking the bucket,” says Rodriguez, who details dizzy spills, skin rashes, diabetes, hypertension and thyroid troubles. “I’m 65 but feel like I’m 80.”

Arellano, who turned 61 on May 3, had a stroke on Easter Day 2014. He says he was diagnosed with pre-leukemia, and has tumors on his arms. He describes symptoms of hot spots and tooth-ache like pains. To get to sleep, Arellano says he must take sleeping pills.

“I go out and try to keep active in my backyard that I built when I was healthy,” Arellano says. “I go to bed early because the pain is unbearable.”
In face-to-face interviews and phone conversations with FNS over the past year, the ex-Asarco workers recalled their experiences working for a landmark El Paso company.

Asarco’s El Paso workers toiled away in a workplace where lead, arsenic and cadmium and sulfur dioxide emissions spewed from big chimneys.  Operative for more than a century, the smelter processed zinc, lead, copper and other products. The plant by the Rio Grande also incinerated old boots, confiscated illegal drugs and contraband, medical waste from the company health clinic, hazardous waste from out of state and, according to former workers, oils containing toxic PCBs.

For decades, black clouds of emissions drifted from the plant across the borderland.  Efren Martinez, who worked the reverb furnace, says Asarco scaled down the machinery whenever the famous Sunbowl football games were held at the stadium behind the smelter so “people from outside El Paso wouldn’t find out what was going on.”

In contrast, the former worker recalls times when emissions spewed right across the border into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where working-class neighborhoods stood only hundreds of yards from the plant.
“They told me charge it as hard as you could, because it was going to Juárez,” Martinez says. “They didn’t care.”

Prior to joining Asarco, Martinez served with U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969. As part of his duties, he remembers loading aircraft with Agent Orange, the highly toxic chemical defoliant the U.S. sprayed over large swaths of Vietnam to strip away the forest and vegetative cover that protected the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters.

In 2014 Rodriguez calculated that 66 of the 350 or so Asarco workers from the last generation had died from cancer and other causes. A year later he estimates more than 90 have succumbed.
According to the former union rep, many of his deceased co-workers were relatively young men in their 50s and 60s, including a brother two years his senior, Richard Rodriguez, who put in 37-years with Asarco and died from colon cancer at the age of 58.

As his brother’s health took a nosedive, Charlie Rodriguez remembers prodding him to see a doctor. “’No, I’m okay,” was big brother’s response, according to the younger Rodriguez.  A co-worker of Richard Rodriguez’s who did not drink or smoke passed away two years later,  he recalls.

Arellano, too, recites examples of Asarco friends and relatives withering away or dying, including a man who developed a cancer that spread across his body and “ate him in weeks” in a downward spiral that had him looking like the “Iceman”; another co-worker had so much arsenic in his system “it was enough to kill a bull.”

Martinez will turn 70 in June. Coping with knee problems, he also reports a bout with prostate cancer. His brother Martin Martinez, who also worked for the smelting giant was set to retire but died at the age of 57 after suddenly coming down with cancer.

Like his brother, other Asarco men who appeared to be in good health would unexpectedly die or end up disabled, especially after the 1980s, Martinez says.

“We want to know what’s happening to us,” chimes in Rodriguez while seated next Martinez during an interview at Rodriguez’s El Paso home.

Martinez proposes a special place where ex-workers and their families can be examined for health problems. A daughter, for instance, has serious skin problems. For some time, Asarco employees took their company threads home for washing, he adds.

“My work clothes mixed in with my children’s clothes,” Martinez says. “(Children) had nothing to do with Asarco, but their clothes got contaminated along with our work clothes.”  As a U.S. Centers for Disease Control fact sheet notes, “..workers can also secondarily expose household members by bringing lead home on their clothes.”

Says Rodriguez, “We are asking for medical studies; we aren’t asking for money. What we want to know is what we have, why we have it and, ultimately, whose fault it was. It’s not ours. We were just workers.”

The Asarco workers’ story is layered in multiple dimensions. In one sense, it stands out as a textbook case of how a transnational corporation, ultimately shielded by a bankruptcy court, shaped the lives of workers and their families.  And it is a saga of how race, class, money and politics intertwined with environmental and occupational health across borders.

Answers- or non-answers-to the mysteries surrounding the worker’s health and possible remedies were fatefully charted in 2005 when, amid hoopla over Asarco’s announced intentions of renewing its Texas state air permit and restarting the smelter, the company, now owned by Mexico-based Grupo Mexico, declared bankruptcy.

Concluded in 2009, the lengthy court process shoved aside the workers’ health concerns as a class. In a document filed with the federal bankruptcy court in Corpus Christi as part of the proposed settlement, the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) said that requests for funding workers’ health assessments from the proposed settlement funds were not an issue within the environmental agency’s work mission or legal jurisdiction.

“Consequently, TCEQ did not file a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding related to funds for health assessments,” the document stated. An exception to the rule, ex-worker Dan Arellano filed an individual claim with the court and received a small award which he says he is prohibited from disclosing but laughingly assures that the amount wouldn’t even “buy a used car.”

Despite the workers’ exclusion from health assessments and serious questions about the adequacy of the $52 million settlement for the environmental remediation of the smelter site and adjacent Asarco-owned property, the legal deal was signed off on by then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is now the governor of the Lone Star state.

Excluded from bankruptcy funds but experiencing declining health, the workers then embarked on a journey into a maze of state, federal and other agencies that goes on and on and on…

To be continued….

-Kent Paterson

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