Mexico Closes Huge Oil Refinery to Cut Pollution

MEXICAN ecologists are gasping with surprise and delight over dramatic government measures to reduce pollution in the most smog-choked city in the world. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari on Monday ordered the immediate shut down of one of the largest oil refineries in the country. Pumping an estimated 88,000 tons of contaminants into the air each year, the government-owned ``18th of March'' refinery has long been a target of environmentalists. Built outside Mexico City limits in 1934, the refinery is now surrounded by residential neighborhoods.

Losing this refinery cuts Mexico's oil refining capacity by about 7 percent and will cost the country about $500 million. But closing this one plant will also reduce some contaminants by 4 to 5 percent reduction, according to government estimates.

``This is a dramatic and courageous step for the government to take,'' said Luis Manuel Guerra, president of the Autonomous Institute for Ecological Research. ``It's a 180-degree turnabout in the government's combat against pollution. I'm astonished.''

President Salinas presided Tuesday over yet another round of pollution-fighting measures. During the next two years, 40,000 city taxis must be fitted with catalytic converters that reduce exhaust gases. Some 12,000 minibuses will be phased out. Eighty percent of the cost will be covered by the Mexican government and a World Bank loan.

Cars with catalytic converters must use unleaded gasoline, which only became available here last September. But unleaded gas is 30 percent more expensive. In announcing the program, Mexico City mayor Manuel Camacho Sol'is asked Salinas to reduce the cost of unleaded fuel.

Some observers suggest these steps are an attempt by Salinas to counter growing opposition in the United States Congress to a free-trade pact based on the lower environmental standards here. Mexico's Undersecretary of Ecology Sergio Reyes Luj'an and Commerce Secretary Jaime Serra Puche will be in Washington on Thursday lobbying for the pact. Others note this is a congressional election year.

Salinas stated simply: ``We want cleaner air for our children.'' The anti-smog program is in response to popular demand ``to protect the health of the inhabitants of Mexico City.''

Indeed, the pollution-fighting steps come on the heels of one of the most contaminated winters on record. Conditions are worse in the winter because dry, windless days tend to trap smog in the mountain-ringed city.

In recent weeks, there have been reports of birds falling dead from the sky. There is a growing clamor for closing schools during high-pollution days. Hospitals reported a jump in respiratory complaints in recent months. Later this month, a company plans to open oxygen booths on major streets in the city. For 5,000 pesos (about $1.65), one can breathe fresh air for one minute.

For three days earlier this month, as part of an emergency antipollution program, 71 factories were forced to cut production by 50 percent. Out of 30,000 factories within this metropolis of 20 million people, about 1,500 are considered major polluters by the Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE).

Ecology groups have accused SEDUE of understating the pollution problem by reporting average daily contaminant levels. The readings are also the basis for enacting emergency measures. On Tuesday, SEDUE chief Patricio Chirinos Calero announced a new reporting system with more monitoring stations.

Pollution peaks will be reported on an hourly basis throughout the day, rather than at the end of each day when it is too late to take preventative measures.

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