Environmental Issues


In an article from borderlines called "Hazardous Waste Management on the Border: Problems with Practices and Oversight Continue", the issue of dealing with hazardous waste produced by maquiladoras in Mexico is discussed. Surprising amounts of hazardous waste are being created by these manufacturing facilities and with the rise in the number of facilities, there is not a comparable rise in programs able to properly store the waste. Only two of the twenty-seven toxic waste plants in Mexico can handle the most dangerous substances. According to the 1992 U.S.-Mexico Integrated Border Environmental Plan, toxic waste is supposed to return to the owning country. However, this rule has been nullified and if hazardous waste is created in Mexico, it will have to stay in Mexico where compliance with hazardous waste regulations is terrible. The amount of waste going from the U.S. to Mexico is around 20-30 times greater than hazardous chemicals going in the other direction. Poor regulation allows for improper methods of disposing of this waste, for example, large amounts of hazardous materials are reported to have been dumped in the deserts near Ciudad Juárez. For more information on improper and illegal reporting of hazardous waste and in the border region of Mexico, click on the link below.



Below is an article discussing the many reasons why the handling of toxic waste in the border region is not regulated and has become an enigma. The author attributed the lack of communication between the EPA (U.S.) and the SEDESOL's different sections (Mexico) to this problem. Also the lack of prioritization, lack of funds, and lack of cooperation between all of the associated parties along with corrpution continue to negatively affect the situation.


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BorderLines 3 (Volume 1, Number 3, July 1993)
Environmentalists Target Mexican and U.S. Agencies
Much of the environmental organizing along the border has been directed against the failure of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its Mexican counterpart SEDESOL to protect the region's natural resources. The EPA came under fire for the shallowness of the Integrated Border Environmental Plan issued last year, but it has been SEDESOL that has taken the most heat from environmentalists and anti-NAFTA organizers.
The Mexican government has assured critics that it has boosted its commitment to environmental protection. But the closure of the Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE) in 1992 and the incorporation of governmental environmental programs within the newly created Secretariat of Social Development (SEDESOL) cast serious doubt on such a commitment. This larger federal agency is responsible for both environmental protection and the country's social service programs. Instead of broadening its mandate for environmental protection, the government has turned over many of SEDUE's responsibilities to private consulting groups as part of its privatization program.
Within SEDESOL the two government offices devoted to the environment (Instituto Nacional de Ecologia (INE) and Procuraduria Federal de Proteccion al Medio Ambiente) appear to have little clout. As part of SEDESOL's organizational structure, they are prioritized below the agencies for urban development, housing, and rural development. Some observers have dubbed the environmental office the Department of Magic Realism because SEDESOL's declarations seem more like fantasies than a serious response to the environmental crisis.
An Early Evaluation of SEDESOL Although the dissolution of SEDUE was explained as an attempt to make government more efficient, the opposite seems to be the case. Bureaucratic chaos and the absence of clear lines of responsibility have resulted from the creation of the two new environmental divisions. Gildardo Acosta, a leader of Red Fronteriza de Salud y Ambiente (Border Health and Environment Network), charged that INE and the Procuraduria each act as if the other office didn't exist. They even tell us that we should make our reports separately to each office because they don't even share  information.
Officially, INE is responsible for research and the formulation of the country's environmental protection policies, while the Procuraduria is responsible for the enforcement of regulations and standards. But border groups complain that it is not clear how the two offices intend to carry out their responsibilities and to meet their shared objective of stricter environmental protection.
In addition to skepticism regarding the depth of the government's commitment to environmental protection, a lack of funds is a serious obstacle to better environmental regulation. Even before mid-year the two environmental offices were running seriously short of funding. A further problem is that in the reorganization some of the responsibilities of SEDUE were left to other agencies (like the Secretary of Agriculture and Water Resources) that are notoriously underbudgeted.
Complaints about SEDESOL are reverberating along the border. Environmentalists and public health activists charge that SEDESOL has not followed up the actions that SEDUE had already taken against contaminating firms. Joint border meetings are often suspended because SEDESOL officials fail to come, and intra-agency disputes further debilitate environmental protection efforts. Members of Red Fronteriza de Salud y Ambiente claim that SEDESOL officials are ill-informed, unorganized, and uncooperative.
Michael Gregory, director of Arizona Toxics Information, reported that SEDESOL offices recently appear to be more willing to cooperate with environmentalists. But the problem is that neither the Procuraduria nor INE have any real power, he complained. In Sonora, these offices don't have any money and they don't have any authority. It is simply not known who is in control. Gregory and many others say that SEDESOL is much less effective than SEDUE was. SEDESOL is a giant without hands, a white elephant, accused Jesus Roman Calleros, a researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
Inspectors Exposed to Corruption
A widespread concern among border environmentalists is that there are too few environmental inspectors to ensure compliance by industry. Another worry is that the few inspectors who are working are insufficiently trained and are using inferior testing equipment.
One environmental consultant estimated that 90 percent of the tests conducted by SEDESOL inspectors are invalid because of imprecise testing methods or because the information is supplied by the companies themselves.
This situation is further complicated by the precarious circumstances under which the inspectors are employed. It is estimated that only a fifth of the inspectors work as full-time government employees while the rest work under contract earning about $600 a month without the benefit of health insurance. Many SEDESOL inspectors in the border zone have been waiting for as much as four months for their salaries.
Many of them are good and honest people, but when they only earn $600 monthly and have the power to close down a factory, they are open to many inducements by the companies they inspect, observed Acosta. The maquilas offer them as much as double the money they get from SEDESOL.
The companies also try to win the inspectors over by providing equipment for SEDESOL offices. One Nogales industrial park, for example, provided SEDESOL inspectors an office sporting its own telephone and fax.
Periodically SEDESOL inspectors are fired for corruption. In March, ten inspectors responsible for monitoring Juarez maquilas were found to be getting company kickbacks.
It was also recently discovered that so-called coyotes obtained false SEDESOL credentials and used them to run an extortion
business involving border factories. All this corruption helps explain why toxic wastes are being illegally dumped in Mexico's deserts and waterways.
Plans To Plan
Both the EPA and SEDESOL have come under fire for their failure to provide adequate funding to deal with the vast array of border health and environmental problems. Instead, their critics say that lofty rhetoric, toothless reports, and lengthy plans are the common response of the two governments to the deepening crisis. Although the Integrated Border Environmental Plan was initially welcomed as a first step toward binationally addressing border environmental issues, it has been severely criticized by many as being merely another plan to plan.
In addition, SEDUE/SEDESOL earned the wrath of many activists for its failure to encourage public participation in the scheduled regional public reviews of the plan. Absent in the plan was any mention of several Mexican border cities, including such towns as Agua Prieta, Sonora; Piedras Negras, Tamaulipas; and Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila. This basic oversight underlined citizen concerns that SEDUE/SEDESOL was not serious about environmental planning.
Another concern of Mexican citizen groups is that the government is squandering a World Bank grant for improved environmental regulation on such transportation infrastructure as road paving and stop lights. Instead, Mexico should be spending the funds to find a solution to the pollution from the Sonora copper mines and to solve the problem of open dumps along the border, according to members of Red Fronteriza. Charged one activist, SEDESOL spreads concrete, but does nothing for ecology.
Symptomatic of the way in which the Mexican government has historically responded to bothersome dissidents, SEDESOL offered to give Red Fronteriza de Salud y Ambiente its own office and to publish the organization's newsletter. SEDESOL also tried to hire a member of the activist network. Red Fronteriza rejected these advances, although it has decided to keep communication channels open with SEDESOL while carefully avoiding becoming dependent on the government.
Discontent with the EPA
The EPA, which holds the dominant role in the binational relationship between environmental agencies, has also been criticized by Mexican border activists for ignoring environmental problems that don't directly impact on U.S. borderlands. According to Roman Calleros, The priorities of the U.S. government aren't our priorities. Here in Mexicali we have many problems related to agrochemical use, urban drainage, and contaminated water that weren't even mentioned in the IBEP. Others are concerned that neither government is adequately addressing the environmental problems related to mining, forestry, and agribusiness in the borderlands.
Compared to SEDESOL, the EPA has made more of an effort to elicit citizen comments, but environmentalists wonder if the agency is actually listening.
As part of its new border initiative in 1992, which itself seemed closely linked with efforts to push NAFTA through the U.S. Congress, the EPA created its Border Public Advisory Committee (PAC) as a consultant on regional environmental policy. But at least some nongovernmental representatives on the committee complained that the PAC seemed to be more a public relations tactic than a real effort to reach out to citizen groups.
In October 1992, Helen Ingram, director of the University of Arizona Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, resigned from the PAC, telling EPA administrator William Reilly that the PAC was too busy working toward improving the environment to engage in empty gestures. Other than having our picture with you and serving as a rationale for providing public money to the World Environment Center [a nongovernmental organization with close connections to the private sector], the EPA Border Advisory Committee has so far served no purpose.
According to Ingram, The federal officials didn't want us to be effective. They want to be able to say, `We did consult and we do have an advisory committee.'
Also criticizing the PAC, committee member Dick Kamp told the EPA, I also work binationally something this Public Advisory Committee seems unlikely to do and a process that EPA has seemingly discouraged since the implementation of the IBEP.
Kamp is quick to point out that there are many committed individuals within the two agencies, but, he says, SEDESOL and EPA will never work together successfully in the border region. For its part, SEDESOL doesn't have the contacts or the resources. EPA is a huge bureaucracy, making it difficult to reform.
Citizen groups along both sides of the border are concerned that instead of working together with government agencies to protect the environment, they are too often ignored or regarded as adversaries. Clearly both agencies need to make more room for effective citizen input. Furthermore, the cross-border working relationship that citizen organizations have established could serve as a model for broader binational initiatives by the governments themselves.
Return to BorderLines 3 index page
IRC Launches New Americas Program; BIOS and borderlines Folded Into New Effort
This IRC project has been folded into another new effort. The U.S.-Mexico website is a historical, non-active site and the IRC has discontinued print publication of borderlines. We continue to offer information and analysis on U.S.-Mexico/border affairs via our new Americas Program. For more recent IRC analysis on U.S.-Mexico and border affairs, visit the Americas Program website at www.americaspolicy.org. For details on our new program and the changes to BIOS and borderlines, visit this page.

For more information on environmental effects caused by maquiladoras, view: