From: Reuters
Published February 13, 2008 07:49 PM

Texas smelter to reopen despite environmental concerns

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Texas regulators on Wednesday approved a controversial air permit to allow Asarco LLC to restart a dormant copper smelter in West Texas over objections of elected officials in El Paso, Texas, New Mexico and Juarez, Mexico.

The three-member Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) voted unanimously to approve Tucson, Arizona-based Asarco's request to reopen the smelter, which has a long history of complaints over its compliance with pollution regulations. The commission added a number of conditions to the draft permit and cut the permit length in half, to five years.

The smelter was shut in 1999 after global prices for copper dropped. Asarco's six-year effort to renew the permit has bounced between the agency and the courthouse.

The permit application garnered widespread opposition from elected officials and community groups due to Asarco's previous operating history. Officials are worried that renewed operation of the plant will increase emissions of lead, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants in El Paso, nearby Dona Ana County, New Mexico, and the city of Juarez, Mexico.

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New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, in a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, last October, said he opposed the permit renewal, citing "potential negative impacts to public health and the environment."

TCEQ Commissioner Larry Soward said, under Texas law, the agency must approve the permit if Asarco successfully addresses deficiencies raised in a 2007 report.

"We have to follow the statute. We really have no choice," Soward said.

However, the commission agreed it wants assurances that Asarco addresses all additional permit conditions, including additional air monitoring for lead emissions, before the plant is allowed to restart.

Wednesday's vote will not end opposition to Asarco's plan, said State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso. "We will not quit," Shapleigh said after the meeting.

He said he has no confidence TCEQ will use its power to stop companies that violate state clean-air laws. "I have no hope they will enforce the law."

TCEQ Chairman Buddy Garcia defended the commission action as consistent with state and federal legal requirements.

"This commission applies all applicable laws clearly and consistently," Garcia said in a statement. "Those regulations are in place to be protective of public health and the environment and they are vigorously enforced."

If granted, "we will comply with this permit," Pam Giblin, an attorney representing Asarco, told commissioners before the vote.

Asarco Inc is owned by Grupo Mexico SA de CV of Mexico City. Asarco filed for bankruptcy protection in 2005 under the weight of massive environmental cleanups and asbestos claims. The company said it had secured agreements to settle these claims totaling $1 billion.

It is unclear if the bankrupt company will reopen the smelter. In late January, Asarco Inc said it would not restart the smelter, depending on the outcome of the bankruptcy case.

Asarco has been granted an extension until April 11 to file a reorganization plan in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of Texas.

(Reporting Pat Jackson and Eileen O'Grady; Writing by Chris Kelly; Editing by Christian Wiessner)

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