Citizen Staff Writer
By CLAUDINE LoMONACO
Mexico has approved construction of a major toxic landfill 25 miles south of the Tohono O’odham Nation without properly informing the United States, and local communities are demanding the project be stopped over environmental concerns.
The project would bring up to 45,000 tons of industrial waste from northwest Mexico to the Sonoran desert annually, said Mexico’s office of environment and natural resources.
The site, La Choya Hazardous Waste Facility, would be near Quitovac, Son., one of the most sacred sites of the Tohono O’odham, and two miles from the Mexican highway used by U.S. tourists on their way to Puerto Peñasco, Son.
Residents of Quitovac and other Mexican communities said they learned about La Choya recently and that the Mexican government failed to provide an opportunity for public review.
Alfonso Flores, of the environmental secretary’s department of hazardous waste, said the agency complied with Mexican law.
“They went out of their way to keep this secret,” said Manuel Gonzalez Montesinos, a social science professor at the University of Sonora in Caborca who helped form a group opposing the project.
On the U.S. side, the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Pima Association of Governments, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said they weren’t informed in a timely manner.
“Anything that will impact the land or air quality or groundwater around the border has to be a concern to all of us. We’re in proximity to it,” said Joan Lionetti, executive director of Tucson Clean and Beautiful, a nonprofit group that promotes a healthy environment.
According to a 1999 agreement between Mexico and the United States, the countries will inform each other within 30 days if either proposes a toxic waste project within 100 kilometers of the border.
The secretary informed the EPA about the site on Sept. 28, said Dave Jones of the EPA’s San Francisco office.
But by that time, the permitting process was “well under way,” Jones said, and there was little room for the cross-border input the agreement was meant to facilitate.
The secretary had already granted one of three necessary project permits before the EPA was contacted, and granted the two other permits by the end of the year, records show.
Cesar Augusto Sandoval, from CEGIR, the Mexican company building the project, said the company talked to the Mexican government about the site for at least a year before the permits were granted.
Word didn’t get out about the project among local communities until about February, residents said.
Opposition grew quickly.
Gonzalez, of the Caborca Citizens Committee, said the Mexican government failed to comply with federal laws that require public hearings before permits for waste sites can be granted.
Flores said the agency complied with the law by buying an ad in a Quitovac newspaper April 10, 2005, and by posting a notice on its Web site.
“The people in Quitovac don’t even have (the) Internet,” Gonzalez said. “How is that supposed to help them?”
Tohono O’odham leaders north of the border found out in March and quickly passed a resolution opposing the project.
“There hasn’t been any consideration to the archaeological, historical or cultural impact to the area that are of concern to the O’odham,” said Ned Norris Jr., former vice-chairman of the Nation.
Stephen Owens, Director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, wrote the secretary a letter, stating that the notification agreement between the two countries should be “re-evaluated in light of the La Choya’s experience.”
On May 30, the Sonoyta, Son., city government denied the company a land-use permit for the 246-acre site.
CEGIR said construction is set to begin in September.
“They don’t have the authority to stop this,” Sandoval said of the local government.
Scientists at the University of Arizona’s newly formed Binational Center for Environmental Sciences and Toxicology analyzed the project’s design to help concerned parties understand potential environmental impacts, and found areas of concern, said the center’s co-director, Jim Field.
The design had no plan for how to handle liquid material or control dust, a primary conveyor of toxic material, Field said.
Nor does it make provisions for separating incompatible materials, he said.
Despite his questions about the proposed site, Field acknowledged that Mexico needs a site where hazardous material can be disposed of and regulated. The only other site such as the La Choya facility is in the state of Nuevo León.
Activists on the Mexican side of the border have little faith in the project’s safety.
“The government hasn’t been up front with us from the start,” said Rosa Maria O’Leary, a Mexican chemist and activist.
She played an instrumental roll in forcing the closure of a similar toxic waste site in Hermosillo, Son., in 1998.
“Why should we trust them now?” she asked.
A violation of the binational agreement carries no U.S. sanction, Jones said.
The EPA has learned, he said, “that it is better to err on the side of public process. People will question even a good facility if you try to sneak it through.
“A little bit of consultation up front is a good investment.”
The agency is reviewing Mexican environmental safety reports to assess potential impact on the United States, Jones said.