Growing up in the tightly knit community of El Paso, Texas, I was always sure of a few things.
One was that family was of the utmost importance. It’s the kind of place where several generations might live within a few blocks of each other, and someone is always ready to help, scold, or praise you.
The other sure-thing involved the skyline: No matter where I was in El Paso, I could always look up and see the smokestacks of the old Asarco smelter looming. The facility affected the city in more ways than that constant visual presence. It gave many residents, including me, a lasting lesson on how pollution and industrial contamination can affect a community.
For years, El Paso families had suspected chemicals from the copper smelting facility had been contaminating nearby homes. Several studies have confirmed this is the case—toxic contamination from arsenic, lead, cadmium, and other chemicals has been found within a radius well outside the boundaries of the facility. And families who live in this area have suffered because of it. For example, a study by the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry found children living near the facility were much more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, which can lead to neurological, behavioral, and developmental problems.
Although the smelter closed down in 1999 (after more than 100 years of operation), its legacy of contamination still affects this community.
Since the company declared bankruptcy in 2009, EPA has been working with the state of Texas and local community leaders to determine how best to clean up the toxic pollution so it doesn’t harm more generations of El Paso families. It’s especially meaningful to me to be at EPA while my hometown is in the midst of doing something so significant to improve public health. El Paso has transformed itself from a city dependent on polluting heavy industry to one with a diverse economic foundation in health care, defense, international trade, and education. So the smelter clean-up is not just a big issue for the city of El Paso, it means a lot to EPA as well.
Since becoming the regional administrator for the South Central region of the US, I’ve been a part of many efforts to restore communities that have been affected by toxins and industrial pollution. It’s been one of the most gratifying parts of my career to see communities transforming themselves, including places that are cleaning up from the legacy of toxic industrial pollution, and cities rebuilding themselves after natural disasters.
Seeing first-hand how pollution can harm the soil, water, and air in a family’s backyard is one of my first “environmental memories.” It’s probably one of the things that led me to study chemistry and engineering, and to become dedicated to protecting the environment. So by leading our region’s work with the state and El Paso’s leaders, I get to help resolve an environmental issue that was present in the lives of my families and friends.
Of course, it’s not just in El Paso that EPA is helping keep families safe and healthy. Along the entire border, we’re bringing colonia communities clean, reliable drinking water for the first time, and working with the government of Mexico to reduce air pollution from trucks hauling cargo into the US. I’m proud to be part of an Agency with such a long track record of protecting the health and environment of people along the border.
Al Armendariz is the Environmental Protection Agency's Regional Administrator for Region 6(Dallas: serving Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas)