Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

ENVIRONMENT: Cleaning Up Lead Contamination on Mexico-U.S. Border

Katherine Stapp* - Tierramérica

NEW YORK, Aug 6 2004 (IPS) - The residents of Colonia Chilpancingo, a desperately poor squatters’ camp just east of the Mexican city of Tijuana, for more than a decade lived in the shadow of the toxic dump of Metales y Derivados – until someone finally took responsibility for clean-up.

Over the past 10 years, the children of Chilpancingo, located near the U.S. border and the Pacific coast, were poisoned with lead, and many were born with terrible defects, including anencephaly (without a brain).

An abandoned lead smelter, Metales y Derivados lies just 130 metres from Chilpancingo, home to more than 10,000 people. The site contains almost 24,000 tonnes of hazardous waste, including 7,000 metric tonnes of lead slag.

In 2002, a report by the environmental oversight commission of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) confirmed community health concerns about the toxic contamination from the smelter.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation was created to monitor environmental problems related to NAFTA, a 10-year-old accord between Canada, Mexico and the United States.

But no action was taken on the Chilpancingo until this year, when a joint U.S.-Mexico programme called Border 2012 began funding a comprehensive clean up of the site to be completed in 2009.

”This year, thanks at least in part to the 2012 programme, clean-up has begun at the Metales y Derivados site, where we’ve been working for 10 years to get action,” said Amelia Simpson, director of the Border Environmental Justice Campaign in San Diego, California, located across the border from Tijuana.

”The community has really benefited from the opportunity to participate in decisions on the project,” she added. ”Our experience has really been positive.”

One of the advantages of Border 2012 over previous binational initiatives is the participation of indigenous groups, said activist Carlos Rincón, director of the Mexican project of the group Environmental Defence, based in the U.S. border city of El Paso, Texas.

Launched in September 2002, the Border 2012 programme sets a deadline of 10 years to achieve cleaner air and water throughout the region, address problems created by hazardous waste dumps, and tackle the numerous health problems faced by border communities as a result of environmental degradation, primarily water-borne and respiratory illnesses.

To date, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has contributed some 475 million dollars to over 50 water and wastewater projects along the U.S.-Mexico border, providing access to potable water and sanitary treatment systems for 6.5 million border area residents.

The two countries also signed a binational air monitoring agreement in late June, and the EPA committed up to 13 million dollars toward the clean up of a wastewater treatment plant in the northwestern city of Mexicali, Mexico.

”It’s a small programme, but it has the potential to do great things,” said Nancy Woo, an official with the EPA who works primarily on Border 2012 projects in the U.S. states of California and Arizona.

”All of these problems are so closely tied to socio-economic issues, and the huge population growth in the border region. It is challenging, because we’re playing catch-up with the environmental infrastructure,” she said.

According to Woo, the Border 2012 priorities are the shared U.S.-Mexican watersheds, like the Rio Grande (known in Mexico as Rio Bravo), and the areas suffering from high levels of air pollution, like the sister cities of Mexicali and Imperial.

The area encompassed by the programme extends 100 km to each side of the U.S.-Mexico border, which runs more than 3,100 km from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Over the last 20 years, population in the border region has swelled to more than 12 million people.

Much of this growth has been in urban areas. From 1990 to 2000, the population of Ciudad Juárez (across the border from El Paso) grew 50 percent, in large part due to the explosion of maquiladoras – factories assembling products for export, emblematic of the production shift from the United States to Mexico.

This boom has overwhelmed existing wastewater treatment, potable water supplies, and solid waste disposal facilities, experts say.

But some activists complain that Border 2012 does not have enough resources to meet its own goals.

”Environmental activists forced elected officials to recognise what NAFTA would do to the border when it took effect a decade ago,” said Talli Nauman, an associate in the Americas Programme of the New Mexico-based Interhemispheric Resource Centre.

”At that time, they convinced the U.S. Congress to allot 15 million dollars a year to run Border 2012’s predecessor, called the Border 21 Programme. But now that NAFTA has become a fact of life and is taken for granted, legislators have only designated three million dollars a year to Border 2012,” she said.

”The bottom line is the bottom line,” said Nauman. ”Unless Border 2012 receives more funding and uses it strategically, sustainable development will remain a mere principle. It will not become a reality… clean-up and prevention measures will be inadequate relative to the growing demand.”

(* Katherine Stapp is a Tierramérica contributor. Originally published Jul. 31 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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