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Earth Day 2005

  En español

A Commitment, 365 Days a Year
By Javier Sierra

On April 22, Earth Day, most of us celebrate the blessings of a healthy planet and our commitment to defend it against abuses.

However, in the little border town of Anapra, New Mexico, there is little to celebrate and a lot to fight for, day in and day out.

For more than 100 years, a nearby smelter located across the Rio Grande, in El Paso, Texas, spewed hundreds of thousands of tons of some of the most toxic metals known to exist.

Since Anapra -one of the country's poorest communities- lies on low terrain, residues of lead, zinc, arsenic and cadmium, carried by the wind, accumulated there, rendering the soil unfit to grow anything.

This nightmare was somewhat alleviated in 1999 when the ASARCO Smelter shut down its operations. But the relief was to be brief because the owners of the facility, with the price of copper now picking up in international markets, have decided to reopen it. And Anaprans, very rightly so, are fuming.

Anapra has New Mexico's highest lead contamination levels. Most of its children have learning disabilities, have trouble concentrating, are irritable and show excessive aggressiveness, all typical symptoms of lead poisoning.

For instance, the five children of Linda Sandoval's -a member of Get the Lead Out, a community group opposing the reopening of the plant-all have learning disabilities.

"It's a mockery that they are trying to open the smelter again", says Linda. "I thought stuff like this took place only in places like Mexico. But corruption is also here."

Lilly Ureño, a volunteer in the La Casita community center, shares her neighbors' fears.

"At La Casita I work with children, and many have asthma and seizures," says Lilly, whose son also has learning problems. "We Anapra mothers are afraid."

ASARCO, however, denies that its smelter has anything to do with the pollution, and historically has counted on the sympathy of local and state officials who consider the company a community benefactor, thereby eluding their cleanup responsibilities.

But a 1971 El Paso investigation found that in one year the smelter spewed 1,012 tons of lead, 508 tons of zinc, 11 tons of cadmium and one ton of arsenic. Another study showed that almost 60% of the children living around the plant had dangerous lead levels in their blood. In fact, ASARCO has pollution problems in 40 facilities throughout the country.

This year, New Mexico's public health officials decided to investigate and, on March 11, visited Anapra. But the residents were hugely disappointment when the investigators refused to conduct blood test among Anapra's children.

"There is no substantial evidence that the children in Anapra have lead in their blood," the investigators told the outraged community.

"This is just one more example of how health departments in Texas and New Mexico have covered ASARCO's toxic legacy for 30 years," said, Yvette Ramirez Ammerman, Get the Lead Out coalition spokesperson. "Children not only play outside in the dirt, they also pick up dust from inside the home as they crawl around. Ignoring the children is frankly ridiculous, if not fraudulent."

Obviously, more evidence that children living near the smelter are contaminated would sink, like lead, ASARCO's chances of getting their permit renewed.

Not only are Anapra's 1,500 residents involved in keeping the smelter closed. Several civic groups from El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juárez are active participants in public hearings that have been taking place for months.

This opposition has turned into a grassroots movement whose most emotional action took place a few month ago during a march 2003 against the reopening of the facility, in which hundreds of people participated. Many of them are residents of the more than 600 properties the federal government has declared contaminated by ASARCO.

The fight will be long, and the hearings will keep going for months, but Anaprans know their strength is their unity.

"This is my home," Lilly says. "I don't want to leave. Here we all take care of each other and we all are going to fight together."

In Anapra, every day is Earth Day.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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