This month Pulse Point presents the first of a two-part series on the U.S.-Mexico border area, which provides an excellent overview of the bilateral relationship and action agenda between Mexican and U.S. environmental agencies as it relates to border issues.
The guest author, Daniel Basurto, is a founding partner of the Mexican Law firm of LexCorp Abogados headquartered in Mexico City, with offices in several of Mexico’s border states as well as the Gulf of Mexico. One of Mexico’s premier environmental attorneys, Basurto is in charge of the firm’s Environmental, Safety and Hygiene practice group.
NOTES ON THE MEXICAN BORDER AREA
by Daniel Basurto Gonzalez
Along the length of the 3,152 kilometer border between Mexico and the United States, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, and within the 100 kilometers on both sides of the dividing line where there are 14 sister city pairs located in the six border states of Mexico, and the four border states of the United States, with their combined approximate population of 11 million persons, there exists a complex problem.
The problem exists because there is an increase of population, industry--primarily the maquiladora industry--and the constant cross-border movement of people, goods and resources. This has impacted significantly on the border environment, from the lack of an adequate evaluation of the Environmental Impact Statement through water pollution, generation, treatment, and disposal of hazardous waste, and the handling of chemical substances, to a poor capacity to educate, inform and develop an “environmental behavior”. We are talking about two different countries that share a common border.
In 1983, Mexico and the United States signed the "Agreement for Protection and Improvement of the Environment in the Border Zone" (better known as the La Paz Agreement), in which they agreed to cooperate on environmental matters and on natural resources along the border. In February 1992, the environmental authorities of both government formulated the Integrated Border Environmental Plan (PIAF). With both the PIAF and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) serving as base, the exchange of goods and services between the two countries began to expand, and with the expansion, new needs and challenges arose with respect to the environmental infrastructure for the border region. In 1996, the Border Program XXI (1995-2000) was created, which represents an effort by the two countries to unite the different federal agencies responsible for the border environment for the purpose of working in collaboration toward fulfillment of a common goal, which is strengthening sustainable development the length of the border. The primary objectives are protection of human health and of the environment and proper natural resource development.
The Border XXI work groups are divided into air, water, solid and hazardous waste, prevention of contamination, natural resources, environmental health, prevention of accidents and emergency response, and resources for environmental information and cooperation for enforcement of the Law.
The primary contaminants we find in the border zone are: carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and suspended particulates with a diameter of 10 micrometers. All of this is caused by emissions from a growing number of vehicles, industrial activity, unpaved streets, agricultural activities, and fires from garbage generated by the economic growth of the regions, which as a consequence generate damage to health and to the environment.
Several strategies have been developed, based on basic air quality norms, such as quality standards, particularly with respect to the previously mentioned contaminants. Among the projects we can note are those for air quality in priority sister cities and the methodology of air emissions inventories, as well as evaluation of the levels of specific contaminant levels through regional air quality monitoring networks and in determination of primary contaminating sources by development of emissions inventories.
Water pollution is one of the main problems that confronts Mexico's northern border, to which we must add the insufficiency of waste water treatment, disposal of untreated effluents, inadequate operation and maintenance of treatment plants, lack of adequate systems for collection, treatment and distribution of potable water, which have the consequence of serious harm to health. Between the two countries there are two important watersheds, which are: the Río Grande and the Colorado River, which suffer from contamination by toxic substances, pesticides, salinity and transportation of sediments.
The characteristics and availability of the water represents the center for their protection. There are bi-national agreements to monitor the quality of the principal water bodies, as well as sanitation. Among the projects we find the Nuevo Laredo, Tam. Waste Water Treatment Plant and the sanitation of the New River in Mexicali; operation of the International Waste Water Treatment Plant in Tijuana-San Diego (South Bay); sanitation for the cities of Piedras Negras, Ciudad Acuña, and Reynosa. In Nogales, Sonora, they began work leading to improvement of potable water supply, the most representative being the start of the construction of the Los Alisos aqueduct. Other important projects are the treatment plant for Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and the System of Parallel Works, as well as rehabilitation of the San Antonio de los Buenos Plant in Tijuana, B.C.
Solid and Hazardous Waste
Our country has an extremely limited infrastructure for handling of hazardous waste, which has caused clandestine disposal practices. Approximately one third of the waste generated is properly handled, and the rest is deposited illegally in municipal dumps, gullies, water bodies, etc.; in the border cities, the problem is relatively minor, since the maquiladora industry, in addition to having, in general terms, a more appropriate concept of the handling and disposal of waste, in any event has the obligation of returning its hazardous waste to the country from which the primary material came.
The recycling industry on the border is minimal. Currently there are a very low number of companies authorized for waste recycling for waste such as solvents, used oil, and metal. The number is greater with respect to collection and transportation of hazardous waste which is returned to the United States.
With respect to municipal solid waste, the Mexican border communities generate higher volumes of waste regarding installed capacity for its handling, and only a little more than half is deposited in sanitary land-fills.
The goal and the objective is reduction of generation and hazard at the source, particularly through adoption of cleaner productive processes. Likewise, its reuse, recycling and recover is intended, and ultimately, its treatment and final disposal. Along these lines, the various local authorities are being encouraged to develop efficient management programs.
A Vulnerability Atlas has been created that allows determining with sufficient certainty the location of sites for treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous and solid waste. The creation of Integrated Centers for Handling, Recycling and Disposal of Hazardous Waste (CIMARI) has been sought, a project that presently is being held up because in our country, there is not the "climate," or perhaps, the "economy" that permits its development.
The two countries have done inspections and investigations of hazardous waste transporters at the principal border crossings and in the international ports in order to find illegal loads and optimize proper management of such waste.
Attempt has been made to implement and improve the HAZTRAKS system, as well as training in the border states of Mexico and the United States. The user manuals have been updated, guides for processing times for data management have been developed. Advance has occurred in the "Correlated Waste Dictionary," identifying the waste that has a direct relationship in both regulatory systems, as well as waste that due to its constituents or characteristics cannot be related.
Prevention of Contamination
The prevention of contamination has been erected as one of the most important pillars of environmental policy for Mexico, through developing instruments that tend to reduce or avoid contamination from its origin, this being most economical. Among the programs that have been carried out, and that have had an important echo in the major border cities, we find the transfer of technology and construction of handling capacity in which many of the border industrial plants have reported economic benefits related to handling and control of their hazardous waste and their solid non-hazardous waste; reduction in energy consumption. Other programs and plans that have been implemented are those for technical assistance in the Mexican border states and the series of bilingual manuals on prevention of contamination and direct assistance to industry for implementation of prevention programs, training workshops on processes that require specific attention, such as automotive mechanics, and the direct work initiatives with the communities and diffusion and development of tools, such as computer programs.
Mexico and the United States share various and complex ecosystems the length of the border, and are therefore
seeking to implement programs for conservation, preservation and maintenance of the woodland flora and fauna in
an effort to coordinate the benefit from and protection of said species. The primary problems that have emerged
are degradation of natural resources, loss of habitat, hunting, illegal trade, illegal exploitation of aquatic
and forest resources, agriculture, and the growth of the cities. Among the programs existing are those for
conservation of contiguous protected natural areas in the border zone, selecting two pilot regions: Arizona, Sonora,
Baja California, and Texas, Chihuahua, Coahuila. Additionally, that of the Sonora Desert Region among the
protected areas of the El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, Altar Great Desert, and upper Gulf of California, the Colorado
River Delta, the Imperial National Wildlife Refuges, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and Organ Pipe National
Monument, now defining a series of cooperation projects that consist of research and management of resources, protection,
combat against threats, and ecological restoration, environmental education and community out-reach, sustainable
development and ecotourism, as well as monitoring and inventory of species, prevention and control of forest fires,
with programs for training, inspection and oversight.
[Editor’s note: Next month’s installment concludes with a look at environmental health issues, accident prevention and emergency response, environmental information, and cooperation in enforcement].
Daniel Basurto of LexCorp Abogados in Mexico City can be reached by phone at: (525) 395-1085; Fax (525) 395-1540, or by e-mail at: email@example.com
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