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A Toxic Tour of Baja

Last Thursday, January 6, Victor Ontiveros arrived on Kettner Boulevard and disappeared into a two-story '60s-era building. When he came out, a couple of Macintosh computers in his arms, he was $3000 richer, with a promise of $9000 more.

Neither the money nor the computers were for him personally but for his fledgling citizens' group in Mexican Tecate, the Comité de Participación y Defensa Ciudadana (Citizens' Participation and Defense Committee). The Kettner-based Environmental Health Coalition had arranged the money through the C.S. Mott and MacArthur Foundations. The $3000 will pay for office rent, plus curtains, chairs, desks, telephones, and a fax machine.

Then Ontiveros and half a dozen colleagues will be ready to take action against the latest hazardous-waste site to set up south of the border: Recicladora Temarry de México. Ontiveros, who makes a living selling second-hand goods at Tecate's swap meet, claims the plant's been built right over aquifers that supply Tecate's drinking water.

"Temarry is a recycling plant. We're not against recycling plants," he says. "[Temarry] is very legal, according to the authorities. The issue is that Tecate depends for its water on wells. And we have a lot of wells in that area. Tecate's always been known for its water. Temarry deals in solvents. We want this company to move away from the water."

Ontiveros's campaign is just the latest citizen revolt against what many see as the evolution of Baja into a vast toxic dumping ground. A binational report prepared by two Mexico City-based environmental groups and the Texas Center for Policy Studies in Austin says the booming maquiladora situation in Mexican border states has had "severe environmental, social, and economic consequences."

According to the report, there were 42 hazardous-waste management facilities in the six Mexican border states in 1998, 9 of them in Baja California. Temarry would make it ten. Mexico's National Institute of Ecology says in 1999 there were many more in Baja -- 34 -- but they include hazardous-waste trucking companies as well.

Many of Tijuana's hazardous-waste management facilities are tucked away in industrial parks around Otay Mesa. They range from Solver, located near the Rodríguez dam, which can recycle nearly 22,000 tons of solvents per year; to Industrias P. Kay de México, which can recycle 720 tons of metal a year; to Bio-Infex Servicios y Tecnologia at Otay Mesa, whose treatment plant can process over 1000 kilograms of medical waste an hour; to Cementos Guadalajara of Ensenada, which burns hazardous waste as supplementary fuel in its cement kiln.

But according to Chris Reiner, the Environmental Protection Agency's California expert on toxic waste, the waste-disposal facilities aren't where the problem lies.

"Folks who are in the business of dealing with hazardous waste, rather than those who just generate it as a byproduct of their main business, are more closely regulated by the environmental agencies in Mexico and the U.S. than the manufacturers," he says. "So in the hierarchy of how well they're managing their processes, they're probably doing better than just about anybody else in Mexico. And that's very important, because they pose the greatest potential for something to go wrong."

But Narisa Jacott, Cyrus Reed, and Dr. Alejandro Villamar, the writers of the Texas report, say plenty has already gone wrong -- including a rash of illegal dumping and a maquila industry that knows it doesn't have to obey the law.

"A terrible consequence of the [maquiladora] development model is the accumulation over decades of an enormous environmental contamination produced by the toxic wastes of these maquiladora enclaves," say the authors. "In the border area, hazardous waste reporting is as infrequent as it is throughout the nation. Most companies do not report their annual generation of hazardous waste to the INE (Instituto Nacional de Ecología, equivalent to the U.S. EPA), as required under Mexican law, and so it is impossible to know with certainty how much hazardous waste is produced in Mexico."

In 1997, the report says, only 7 percent of Baja California manufacturing companies complied and reported their hazardous waste to officials. That is, Baja California maquilas and Mexican manufacturing plants only admitted to producing 29,508 tons of it, when PROFEPA, Mexico's federal attorney general's office for environmental protection, estimated they'd actually produced at least 534,564 tons. Nationally the picture is not much brighter. "In 1997," the report continues, "the National Ecological Institute only received 10,751 hazardous waste manifests, which apparently covered only about 10 percent of all companies."

The irony, says the Environmental Protection Agency's Reiner, is that the Mexican government couldn't cope with much more anyway. "The most troublesome figure for me has been presented by various folks in Mexico. [They say] that as far as hazardous-waste disposal capacity, [Mexico] has enough facilities to handle about 15 percent of the waste that is generated [nationwide]. No more."

The reporting of hazardous waste has always been considered crucial: the 1983 "La Paz Agreement" required maquiladoras to return all hazardous materials they had brought into Mexico back to their country of origin, usually the United States. Yet, unlike the U.S., companies in Mexico are not responsible for that waste once it's been loaded in a truck. "This means that the main consideration of maquilas and other generators of hazardous waste is the cost of transportation and disposal, not the proper management of hazardous waste once it leaves their doors. Paying a transportation company to dump it in the desert is often the easiest way to cut costs," says the Texas report.

PROFEPA, which enforces Mexico's environmental laws, says it's taken actions to enforce the law over the past few years. They carried out 5210 inspections between January 1996 and July 1997. These included 1403 inspections of maquiladoras, which led to partial closures at 20 of them.

The problem for U.S. observers, including the Environmental Health Coalition, is that, as the Texas report notes, "penalties in Mexico are minuscule compared to penalties in the U.S." Also, unannounced inspections "are infrequent" -- though this is also true in the U.S. The result: industries have time to do a quick cleanup and cover-up before inspectors arrive.

But most important, Mexico's version of the environmental protection agency will not publicize which maquila plants it has found to be noncompliant. This is considered to be a private matter between the government and the industrial plant. Concerned citizens cannot find out which of their industrial neighbors poses a threat. "Without this information," the report says, "it is impossible to know if enforcement is leading to a cleaner environment."


Reality hits home high on a mesa, inland from downtown Tijuana, looking out over the green Cañon del Padre valley, with the township of Chilpancingo below. From up here, it looks like an idyllic riverside settlement. Distant horses graze, the colonia goes about its daily business, and cattle send up moos from muddy corrals. The valley is greenest near the shining river Alamar, a tributary of the Tijuana river. As you look up the valley you see it, too, has its own tributaries -- except they are concrete-lined runoffs racing down the valley sides from the maquiladoras above.

A few steps back from the mesa's edge are the piles of smashed batteries left by the abandoned smelter operated by Metales y Derivados, a compound piled with 6000 metric tons of lead slag, which eats its way through the cinderblock walls. Mexico's federal environmental agency shut down the plant in March 1994 but couldn't force its Chilean owner and San Diego resident, José Kahn, to clean it up. When the winds blow, lead dust swirls into the valley. When it rains, the lead leaches into the Alamar River and the surrounding grasslands where children play.

"At the heart of the problem," says the report, "is the lack of adequate reporting of hazardous waste generation and management by the companies themselves and the absence of [the public's] 'right to know.' These factors make the task of overseeing environmental compliance extremely difficult."

In 2001 it could become even more difficult. NAFTA rules say as of next year, maquiladoras will be able to "nationalize" -- become Mexican companies. If they do, they will no longer be required to return hazardous wastes to the country of origin. Mexico, says the Texas report, can expect an increase in the waste it has to handle. "Why should a maquiladora expose itself to liability in the U.S. if it can dispose of the waste -- legally -- in Mexico?"

The report quotes the Environmental Protection Agency's Reiner as saying that even in 1998 "more than 200 plants" left their foreign-corporation tax status and nationalized. But Reiner sees rays of hope. "In the last six years or so, the maquiladora industry has grown by about 50 percent. There've been 1000 new maquilas added nationally. About 80 percent of them are in the border region. There were 3310 as of July last year in all Mexico, and 737 of them are in Tijuana, far and away the greatest single concentration of maquilas, although not of employees.

"So the growth has been tremendous, but we've actually seen, in terms of how much hazardous waste is coming from Mexico, a decrease. The reason for that seems to be that they're following a similar pattern that we saw in the U.S. Even though we've had industrial growth over the last couple of decades in the U.S., we've seen hazardous-waste generation go down, because industries are beginning to realize that it costs them money to generate all this stuff. If they can make their processes a little more efficient, they save money, and it's easier for them to comply with the rules. We can tell that the 'pollution-efficiency' is improving. Even as more maquilas come on line, less hazardous waste is being generated."

Back in Tecate, Victor Ontiveros says his battle to persuade Recicladora Temarry to move away from Tecate's aquifers is not going to be easy. After all, they've just built their plant at kilometer 121 on the Mexicali-Tijuana highway, and Temarry operations manager Matt Songer says there is no fear of contamination, even though he realizes the site was built near aquifers. "We've taken every precaution," Songer says. "We have seven inches of concrete slab to protect [against any leaks]. We have 24-hour monitoring. If there are leaks, sensors will detect them."Songer says concerned citizens should be more worried about oil drainage from a nearby 1000-car junk yard and runoff from the valley's cattle and dairy farms.

But Ontiveros says he already has support from Tecate's director of civil protection and Tecate's director-general of the state commission of public services, which controls the town's water supply. "Next," he says, "I'll talk to the Tecate beer people. They've got to be interested. They get the water for their beer from our aquifers too."

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