Organizing Asarco Workers

When he took the job at American Smelting and Refining Company in 1972, Carlos Rodriguez was proud to work at a plant that had employed El Paso residents for nearly a century. Twenty-eight years later, Rodriguez was let go when the lead and copper smelter closed.

At the time, he had no idea how much Asarco had taken from his life.

Rodriguez, 62, was a maintenance electrician. He worked in neither the acid plant nor the furnace, and he didn’t process toxic waste. Still, he was exposed to toxic chemicals and now suffers severe health problems, including diabetes, thyroid disorders, hypertension, and an aggressive rash that covers his entire body.

Now on Social Security disability, Rodriguez is mobilizing former Asarco employees and the community to demand that the old smelting site near the Rio Grande be properly cleaned up.

“The goal of the workers is twofold: to make sure remediation is done the right way to protect future generations, and to address the health problems they have,” says Veronica Carbajal, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA). Carbajal is representing several former Asarco workers who want the site cleaned up. The workers say their health problems range from multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease to strokes and leukemia.

Rodriguez has been instrumental in rallying the workers and collaborating with legal aid. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” he says, referring to his health problems. “There’s five or six of us who work on this issue. I call us the walking wounded.”

The El Paso smelter illegally incinerated toxic waste until a 1997 consent decree between the Environmental Protection Agency and Asarco ended the practice. The federal agency also slapped the company with a $5.5 million fine. But the workers didn’t know they had been exposed to contamination until years later.

“We were inhaling it, working with it with our hands and eventually it got the best of us,” Rodriguez says. “If they hadn’t brought in all those gases we wouldn’t have gotten sick, and I would still be working right now.” … FULL STORY