Environmental rules lack teeth
With no means of enforcement, regulations often ignored
By LUKE TURF
TIJUANA, Baja California -
Whenever the wind blows here, microscopic particles of lead, the residue from a long-closed American battery recycling plant, seep through the cracks and crevices of Andrea Pedro’s home and into her young children’s bloodstreams.
About 450 miles to the east, raw sewage from Mexico periodically flows through a canal bisecting the border towns of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Son., and into the groundwater and the Santa Cruz River bed.
In between, in Imperial County, Calif., children are twice as likely to be hospitalized with asthma than are children elsewhere in the state, a condition local officials blame on dust kicked up from increased traffic on dirt roads south of the border.
Ten years after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, its “side” agreement – designed to clean environmental hazards along the U.S.-Mexican border – has fostered some success stories. But many of the most contaminated sites haven’t gotten past the documentation stage.
The problem is a lack of enforcement, agree NAFTA critics and supporters.
Although the side agreement created a commission to document problems, NAFTA negotiators avoided forming an organization to enforce cleanups.
“That’s one of the things that was resisted,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., one of NAFTA’s biggest boosters.
The side agreement has no enforcement arm because no one wanted to deal with the issue of which country’s environmental regulations took precedence, Kolbe said.
Toxic lead in Tijuana
The level of lead in Pedro’s 4-year-old daughter is 17 micrograms per deciliter. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems. At high levels, lead poisoning can result in seizures, comas and even death.
The Pedro family and about 10,000 other people live in Colonia Chilpancingo, a working-class community on the outskirts of Tijuana. The community also was once the home of Metales y Derivados (Metals and Derivatives) a U.S. battery recycler that left behind an estimated 6,000 metric tons of lead slag, broken battery cases, sulfuric acid and heavy metals when the Mexican government shut it down for environmental violations in 1994.
The abandoned plant site, about the size of a city block, is a stone’s throw from Pedro’s home.
Lead dust from rusting, cracked barrels spills onto the ground. A child playing in the area could easily slip through one of the numerous holes in the fence surrounding the plant and perhaps fall into the pool where the company dumped battery acid.
“The lead is sweet,” Pedro said of the particles on her taste buds as she led a reporter on a tour of the site. Her footsteps created poisonous puffs of powder.
“Imagine the fear I have living here,” she said. “My kids can’t get the lead out of their blood.”
The Commission for Environmental Cooperation, established by the NAFTA side agreement to facilitate cooperation among the United States, Mexico and Canada on environmental issues, last year concluded a four-year study of the Metales y Derivados site.
But the study won’t lead to funding for cleanup, said Amelia Simpson, director of the San Diego-based Border Environmental Justice Campaign, which promotes safer and healthier working conditions in Mexico’s maquiladora industry.
“There’s no enforcement mechanism,” said Simpson, who calls Metales y Derivados the “poster child” for NAFTA’s shortcomings. “Documentation is the extent of their mandate.”
The NAFTA side agreement also created the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission, which certifies environmental cleanup projects for funding by the North American Development Bank, also formed by the side agreement.
The government of Baja California has submitted a petition to the BECC to clean up the site. But even if the commission certifies the site, there are no funds available for cleanup, bank officials said.
The bank, commonly known as NAD Bank, was established to fund wastewater plants and water delivery systems. Its mission since has been expanded to include air quality, water conservation and renewable energy projects, bank spokesman Juan Antonio Flores said.
But the bank is underfunded. The three countries that signed NAFTA were supposed to kick in a total of $3 billion of capital, and the bank has received only $450 million, Flores said.
Neither NAFTA officials nor the residents of Colonia Chilpancingo are expecting the owner of the recycling plant to help. Jose Kahn fled Mexico after authorities issued an arrest warrant charging him with environmental violations.
Kahn did submit a proposal to the BECC for cleaning the site, but officials determined it was not a serious plan, said Felix Arenas, a spokesman for the commission.
Kahn declined to comment when reached by telephone at his San Diego home and referred a reporter to his lawyer, who did not return phone calls.
Toxic wastewater in Nogales
The wastewater treatment plant in Nogales, Ariz., is supposed to treat all sewage generated in Nogales and its sister city, Nogales, Son. It is the only binational treatment plant along the entire U.S.-Mexican border.
But skyrocketing growth in Nogales, Son., which officials tie in large part to the growth of the maquiladora industry since NAFTA was enacted, has strained the plant. U.S. officials say Mexico is exceeding its limit by 3 million to 5 million gallons of wastewater a day.
Because Nogales, Ariz., is downhill from Nogales, Son., the excess wastewater ends up pouring into the United States, said Joe Yanez, a technician and safety officer at the plant.
Yanez said the untreated water, which sometimes includes toxic chemicals, passes through a wash that runs through the middle of Nogales, Ariz., and eventually ends up in the Santa Cruz River.
“You never know what’s in the Nogales Wash, it can change from minute to minute,” he said.
Yanez said that during the rainy season, the 20-foot-deep wash fills to the brim, and the excess wastewater sometimes leaks over the wash’s banks and into the main shopping district.
The situation is “one of those deals NAFTA forgot,” said John Snyder, utilities director for Nogales, Ariz.
The wastewater treatment plant is run by the International Boundary and Water Commission, based in El Paso, Texas. Stephen Tencza, the commission’s Nogales project manager, said the wash has become a public health threat because residents could come into contact with any number of toxic materials and cattle could drink contaminated water.
The NAD Bank has earmarked $60 million to expand capacity at the treatment plant, but construction plans are stalled because bank and city officials can’t agree on exactly what needs to be done, Snyder said.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency recently authorized the city and the IBWC to proceed with a plan in which the city would develop a new treatment plant run by the IBWC solely to treat wastewater from Mexico.
Nogales, Ariz., resident Teresa Leal recently filed suit against all agencies involved because nothing was being done to address the wastewater problem. She blames the lack of enforcement power among the agencies created by the NAFTA side agreement for allowing the Santa Cruz to continue to be polluted long after the problem was identified and money allocated to fix it.
“With NAFTA, they are just little Band-Aids,” she said of the agencies.
Bad air in Imperial County
Imperial County, sandwiched between the Arizona border and San Diego County, is constantly in violation of federal air quality standards.
Brad Poiriez, senior manager for air quality, said the county could be in compliance if it wasn’t for all the dust blown into the county from traffic on unpaved roads in Mexico. Poiriez believes the dust, which he said is a direct result of “uncontrolled industry” spawned by NAFTA, is the leading cause of the county’s high rate of respiratory problems.
About 8,000 cases of asthma have been documented among the county’s 141,000 residents, said Yolanda Bernal of Imperial County’s Public Health Department. Children are hospitalized for asthma at a rate of 566 children per 100,000, she said, while the rate for the rest of the state is 216 per 100,000.
Arenas, the BECC spokesman, said his agency recently certified a project to pave more roads in Mexico near the border with Imperial County and in other parts of Baja California.
The five-year project, which will cost $463 million, will include $25 million in loans from the NAD Bank, said Scott Storment, the bank’s development officer. The rest will come from Mexican state and federal funds, he said.
Although much remains to be done to clean the border environment, Flores said, the agency has accomplished a great deal in a short time. He said the agency certified $485 million in financing for 55 projects along the border in both countries.
But some NAFTA critics, such as Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, contend that cleaning up the border will be a never-ending game of catch-up.
“They may have done a few feel-good things, but when you compare it to the massive industrialization and pollution in the border region sparked by NAFTA, there’s no way to keep up,” he said.
CLEANING UP THE BORDER
The Border Environmental Cooperation Commission has certified 63 border environmental projects for funding by the North American Development Bank since 1995.
- The bank has approved funding for 57 of the projects.
- 23 of the 57 have received some funding.
- 9 have received all the funds needed.
- 15 projects have been completed.
PROJECTS RECENTLY FUNDED BY NAD BANK
- $1.25 million loan and a $500,000 grant will pay for construction of a sanitary landfill and improvements in municipal sanitation services in San Luis Rio Colorado, Son. The project is expected to relieve soil, air and groundwater contamination through closure of an open-air dump.
- A $1.3 million grant will help pay for improvements to the wastewater treatment plant and wastewater collection system in Patagonia. The project is expected to reduce wastewater discharge from leaks in the system.
- A $1.5 million grant will help build a wastewater collection system in Gadsden, an unincorporated town south of Yuma.
- A $4 million loan will help pay for a road-paving project in Agua Prieta, Son. Paving is expected to improve air quality in Douglas because the prevailing south-to-north wind carries dust from unpaved roads north of the border.
PHOTO CAPTIONS: DAVID MAUNG/For the Tucson Citizen
Andrea Pedro, 25, a mother who lives near an abandoned battery recycling plant on the outskirts of Tijuana, says the toxic particles in the air burn her throat.
Pedro draws with her 4-year-old daughter, Maria Guadalupe Gomez, and her 6-year-old son, Hugo Ivan Gomez. Maria has dangerous levels of lead in her blood.
TRICIA McINROY/Tucson Citizen
Jose Manuel Zuniga; his wife, Guadalupe; their daughter, Gisel, 2; and their son, Angel, 6, live near a contaminated drainage canal in Nogales, Mexico. The black tank (background) is where they store their water, which they get from tanker cars.