By John Kanelis
They used to process zinc at a smelter just east of Western Street and south of Hastings Avenue.
Not any longer. Indeed, not for a long time. The site has been vacant for decades. It's grown over with weeds and what are referred to euphemistically as "wild flowers."
Have you wondered whatever happened to the site and its former occupant?
Well, the occupant, American Smelting and Refining Co., is gone – from that property. The company now operates a copper refinery north of Amarillo, just off the Fritch Highway. The old zinc smelter site is now under the ownership of a trust company that has managed the site since August 2009.
The site became contaminated, which is not uncommon for plants that process heavy metals such as zinc, which is what ASARCO did in Amarillo from 1923 until 1975.
"ASARCO filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009," said Roberto Puga, who runs a trust called Project Navigator, which oversees the sprawling site. "The company had been forced to resolve some environmental liability" at the location.
The plant ceased operation in 1975 and ASARCO then built a copper refinery a good distance from the zinc smelter location. But in the 1980s, the federal government – using its authority under legislation that created the Superfund environmental cleanup operation – inspected the site and found that it contained lead, arsenic and zinc deposits in the ground, according to Tom Aldrich, ASARCO's vice president for environmental affairs.
"The feds went back and looked at closed facilities all across the country," Aldrich said by telephone in an interview from his Tucson, Ariz., office. ASARCO's old zinc plant was one of them. Many ASARCO employees who had worked at the zinc smelter were able to transfer to the copper refinery once it opened, he said.
"We owned the (zinc smelter) site until 2009," Aldrich said, explaining that's when the Project Navigator trust operation took it over.
The then-Texas Water Commission also got involved, according to Andrea Morrow, statewide media relations manager for what is now the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. She said in a statement that "$80,000 of the trust fund have been allocated to support post closure, care maintenance (such as mowing and inspection activities) of a 112-acre soil cover, maintenance of fencing surrounding the property and payment of property taxes associated with the former ASARCO Amarillo property."
The TWC in April 1988 – 13 years after ASARCO closed its zinc plant – "conducted a site investigation and took soil samples, which documented the presence of soil contamination associated with the site," Morrow's statement continued. "The agency required a facility-wide remedial investigation and cleanup to address releases associated with the site," she said, adding that "ASARCO submitted documentation supporting final closure activities for the site in reports dated July 9, 1998 and Aug. 3, 1998." TCEQ approved the reports on May 28, 1999, she said.
Puga said the site is now restricted to light-industrial or commercial use, although Amarillo Planning and Zoning Director Kelley Shaw said the tract is currently zoned for agricultural use. Shaw said the city charter requires an automatic agricultural zoning for property the city annexes; Amarillo annexed the property in 2006, Shaw said. The site would remain zoned for agriculture "until we get some development out there," he said.
Shaw added that in the city's comprehensive land-use plan, the former ASARCO site is marked for suburban/general residential use.
Puga doesn't believe residential development is in that site's future. "There likely won't ever be homes built there, or schools or churches or hospitals," Puga said, noting that the contamination on the site has been "mitigated," meaning it's been resolved to federal and state environmental standards' satisfaction. Puga said removing the material completely from the site would be cost prohibitive. "The only way to have a clean closure would be for someone to dig out the material, haul it off and dispose of it safely somewhere," he said. "Institutional controls" will remain for the property, he said. "I believe that the site will have restrictions, probably forever," he added.
Puga, who lives in southern California – but who spends time managing another closed ASARCO site in El Paso – said the trust at one time tried to put the Amarillo property on the market for sale. The trust had virtually no takers, Puga said. "We took out newspaper ads, hired a real estate broker, we tried everything to sell it," he said, adding that the only interest in the site came from an "adjacent property owner – but then he went bankrupt."
Potter-Randall Appraisal District records show that about 230 acres were affected by the sale effort. The land is appraised at roughly $384,000, according to PRAD documents.
Puga said the site has been capped and sealed off. He termed the area a "landfill," but was quick to point out that it's not a place "where you can take trash, yard clippings or any kind of household items to dump." The cap and seal are intended to prevent any seepage of the minerals into the aquifer, Puga said.
Puga, a geologist by training, said the El Paso site closure has drawn far greater community interest than the Amarillo site. "We've never gotten a call from the community about the ASARCO site in Amarillo," Puga said. "The only time we hear from anyone in Amarillo is when someone tries to dump something on the site." The property is barricaded with a chain-link fence, with signs that request visitors to call the Amarillo Police Department if they see any suspicious activity on the property.
The ASARCO site isn't exactly in the middle of nowhere. Just across Western Street, and a bit south of the property, lies Tascosa Country Club and the homes located around the golf course. The Vineyards is another residential development that's going up just northeast of the site.
Shaw added that the city is encountering some "doughnut holes," or undeveloped tracts of land surrounded by development. "I guess it's possible you can build around the site," said Shaw, explaining that an active rail line next to the site is "like a physical barrier" to future development of any kind. In addition to the Vineyards, Shaw noted, the city is seeing growth in The Heights neighborhood east of the former ASARCO site.
If someone were to approach the city about developing the site, Shaw said, "We would ask more questions about their intent. We would want to know what they intend to do there and whether the land use being proposed is appropriate for the site."
Still, as PRAD officials noted, "there's been no interest that we're aware of by anyone" regarding the abandoned zinc smelter location.