Arsenic in the Attic

Juan Garza: "When I got the results, I was really concerned."

El Paso, Texas, resident Juan Garza hasn't always cared about the environment. In fact, when the metals giant Asarco applied for a permit in 1992 to expand its copper smelter, he supported the company. Garza, 41, owned a home less than two miles from the smelter and had for years been bothered by the smell of its emissions. He believed the company's promise that it was going to install top-drawer pollution-control technology, which he saw as a boon to his property value.

That did not happen. The company paid for upgrades but didn't bother with state-of-the-art technology. Proof of this came at the time of Asarco's permit bid, when a similar permit was being sought by a different smelter operator near Galveston. Though the Galveston smelter would have had twice the production output of Asarco's "new and improved" one, it would have produced a hundredth the amount of cadmium, half the arsenic, a fifth the lead, and a third the sulfur dioxide. Even so, Asarco's permit sailed through.

When Asarco failed to keep its promise, Garza began paying closer attention to what was coming out of its smokestacks. In 2001, he heard from neighbors that the EPA was testing local soil for lead contamination. He'd been doing some remodeling work in his 100-year-old house and noticed thick dust in the attic, so he wrote a letter to the EPA, requesting that it test the dust. The agency said it would sample the soil in his front and side yards but declined to cross the threshold into his home, saying it was beyond the scope of its inquiry. Garza collected his own attic-dust sample and sent it to a lab in St. Louis. The results: 118.4 ounces of arsenic per 1,000 square feet--nearly 30 times higher than the safe limit; another test revealed that lead levels were 700 parts per million. (All yards in his area with lead readings above 500 ppm are supposed to be decontaminated by the EPA.) His education as an activist came as he tried to get Asarco, the EPA, local and state health departments--anybody--to help him with the problem upstairs.

The EPA found elevated arsenic and lead levels in Garza's yard, replaced the soil, then sent him a letter, saying in part: "Potential exposure to lead and/or arsenic has been eliminated by the removal action performed on your property, and therefore no further remedial action ... is required." Internal memos at the EPA indicate that the agency felt there wasn't enough money to decontaminate affected yards, much less inside homes. Staffers also worried that pushing Asarco to pay for more cleanups would get them "tied up in court and then the resources shift ... away from cleanup actions."

To date, Garza's attic dust remains. He and his family now live in another home farther away from the smelter. But he can't rent or sell the first one: He'd be liable for heath effects since he had the dust tested and knows what it contains. He went to the county tax appraiser's office, gave it the lab results, and asked for a new valuation of his property. His historic home, which used to be worth just over $43,000, had lost nearly $25,000 in value. A cleanup company gave him a $7,000 estimate for the attic. "I'm tired and broke, and I just don't have the resources to clean up myself," he says.

The experience made an activist of Garza. With his wife's blessing, he quit his job several years ago to focus solely on environmental issues associated with lead exposure in the El Paso area. Garza dove into research--on Asarco, the health effects of lead, and community organizing. In 2003, he helped found the Get the Lead Out Coalition to protect other homeowners from his fate.

"I didn't think about what companies can get away with and how people can suffer," he says, "until it hit home, literally."

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