AUSTIN -- Asarco friends and foes in El Paso are watching closely as Gov. Rick Perry prepares to make an appointment that could determine whether the copper smelter gets a green light to restart operations.

Perry will choose someone to replace Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Kathleen Hartnett White whose term expires at the end of August.

Those who support Asarco hope the new commissioner will weigh the economic impact the smelter could have in El Paso. Opponents want someone who will consider environmental concerns about Asarco's operations above all others.

"The governor is going to put someone on the board who recognizes that they have to hear the concerns of the local communities and balance that against the overall needs of our state," said Perry spokesman Robert Black.

Asarco's smokestack on the edge of the city stopped working in 1999 when the price of copper tanked.

With prices of the metal rising again in 2002, Asarco sought to renew its air quality permit with TCEQ, which would allow smelting to restart.

More than five years later, the commission, which has never before denied such a permit, has still not decided whether to grant Asarco's request.

At each step in the permitting process, El Pasoans and others in the region who oppose Asarco's reopening have been contesting the company's request.

The vacant spot on the commission could delay a decision on Asarco's permit even further.

TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said the three-person commission can take votes with only two members present, but a split vote would result in postponement of the issue until a third commissioner was available.

Mayors and other elected officials from El Paso, New Mexico and Juárez, have called on TCEQ to deny the permit.

They argue the company has a history of polluting the ground and air and of sickening area residents.

"We're looking for somebody at TCEQ who has the health and safety of the people of Texas foremost in their mind and particularly here in El Paso," said Jim Kelly, spokesman for Get the Lead Out Coalition.

Kelly said he doesn't mind if the appointment of a new commissioner further delays a decision on Asarco's permit.

"Right now, they are not authorized to operate, and I like that," he said. "I like the fresh, clean air we have now."

Lairy Johnson, environmental manager at Asarco's El Paso plant, said the company could work with whomever Perry appoints. The company has contended its operations are clean and meet state environmental standards.

"We have confidence in the process," he said.

Jimmy Dominguez, a former Asarco employee anxious to see the plant open again so he can get his job back, said he would like to see a new commissioner appointed and a decision made soon.

"For me, it is kind of gut-wrenching to wait and just wait, but there's nothing we can do," he said.

Dominguez said Asarco's opponents exaggerate negative effects of the smelter's pollution. His father and uncles, he said, worked in the plant for years and remain healthy.

Along with other Asarco backers, Dominguez points to the high-paying jobs the company would provide.

A study by the Institute for Policy and Economic Development at the University of Texas at El Paso released in April estimated reopening Asarco would generate more than $1 billion in the local economy and create about 1,800 new jobs.

"We just want to go back to work and live a life I had that opportunity to live," said Dominguez, who now works at a state prison making less than he did at Asarco. "I was making really good money; my kids, my wife were well taken care of."

Perry spokesman Black said the governor has not yet decided whom he will appoint to the board. Perry would rather get it done right than get it done quickly, he said.

But he said Perry would want a commissioner who could balance environmental responsibility with the state's economic needs and growing energy requirements.

"The governor does not believe TCEQ should be an agency that is anti-industry, but by the same token, it cannot cater to the industry," Black said.

Buddy Garcia, whom Perry appointed to the commission earlier this year and made chairman this week, said he could not comment specifically on the Asarco permit or when the board might vote on it.

He said, though, that assuring the public that the commission is working to protect the environment is one of the agency's biggest challenges.

"This is a trust issue for me," Garcia said, "and it's all about balance."

Brandi Grissom may be reached at; (512) 479-6606.