How Do You Clean Up A 2,000 Mile Garbage Dump?

Two years ago, firefighters in Juarez, Mexico, rushed to deal with a truck that had spilled its contents across one of the border city's roads. Firefighters sprayed the spill with water--creating a hissing cloud of noxious vapor. The truck had been carrying sulfuric acid. No one was hurt, but Juarez' chief environmental inspector, Oscar Monsivais, still shudders when he recalls the incident. "The fire department is ready for a fire from 1950," he says, "not one with the chemicals you have now."

The situation is much the same in other newly industrialized cities along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, where U.S. industry has built 2,000 plants during the past 20 years. The factories spew rivers of toxic chemicals each year, from benzene to xylene, in a region more accustomed to disposing of cattle dung and crankcase oil. The result? Sewage and toxic waste from Tijuana flows into California, blighting beaches. Cows graze on lead-laced dumps in Tijuana, raising the specter of tainted milk. And inspectors are still investigating the origins of 685 barrels of toxic waste they found dumped near Juarez last April.

This environmental danger zone is about to take center stage as Mexico and the U.S. inch closer to striking a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). With negotiators hammering out the final points of the trade deal, President Bush and Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari face a growing chorus of complaints about the environmental problems the pact could produce.

ECO-MAYHEM. Last year, the two nations tried to head off the controversy with a plan to boost pollution enforcement, build sewage treatment plants, and exert control over hazardous chemicals. Officials from both countries hope to lay out the next steps of the cleanup, including dealing with the region's dirty air, at a summit planned for June 25 and 26 in Santa Fe, N.M.

Yet neither effort has stemmed the acrimonious debate over NAFTA and the environment. The fight is waged mostly by U.S. labor unions and environmentalists from both countries. They insist that eco-mayhem along the border will only worsen once NAFTA takes effect. Both governments insist that free trade is the only way to give Mexico the wherewithal to match strict U.S. pollution standards. "The best way to ensure that Mexico has resources for environmental investments is through strong economic growth," Daniel C. Esty, deputy assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

But even free-trade boosters admit that the cross-border cleanup is long on press releases and short on money. The Border Trade Alliance, a business group that supports NAFTA, estimates that some $5.5 billion is needed to prepare the border's environment for free trade (table). But the EPA has asked Congress for just $240 million in 1993 funding for the problem. And Mexico says it can spend just $460 million on the effort during the next three years.

Given the monumental size of the task, that money won't go far. Fire departments need new equipment. Hazardous waste needs disposal sites. And both sides need more inspectors. Even efforts already under way come up short. Dirty water along the border kills thousands of infants each year because of the dehydration that accompanies diarrhea caused by drinking contaminated water. To deal with the problem, the two governments have proposed a new plant for Tijuana that could handle 25 million gallons of sewage a day. But that's short of current demand and doesn't include funding to link the half of the city that isn't hooked up to sewage pipes.

CHASTENED. A year ago, as free-trade opponents focused their environmental arguments, Mexico began a crackdown on maquiladoras--border manufacturing plants. The 80 temporary closings have been Mexico's best weapon against pollution, thanks to the publicity they create. "Environmental consciousness has risen dramatically over the last 18 months," says Javier Guerra, president of Quimica Omega, a hazardous-waste treatment plant near Mexico City. After one of its border plants was temporarily shut down last year, General Motors Corp. announced plans to spend $20 million on waste-water treatment facilities at 31 of its maquiladoras.

Stopping the region's polluting outlaws will be much harder. The minute U.S. Customs inspector Pablo Contreras begins randomly checking southbound traffic for toxic waste, the trucks turn around. Once the two countries are on the same trade team, those trucks may not have anywhere to turn.

      Mexico has put $460 million into cleaning up industrial pollution along the 
      border. Congress and the Administration are dickering over the U.S. 
      contribution--between $200 million and $500 million. The problems are 
      Materials are transported across overburdened bridges and roads and illegally 
      dumped into clandestine landfills
      The region is subject to new diagnostic studies, but in the meantime auto and 
      industry emissions are rising
      Funding for new sewage treatment plants has increased on both sides of the 
      border. But a steady stream of untreated waste still flows into the Rio Grande 
      and Gulf of Mexico
      Few plans have been developed for coping with toxic accidents. And while Mexico 
      recently doubled its ranks of environmental inspectors, it faces a shortage of 
      qualified inspectors
      DATA: BW
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