US, Mexico Launch Border Cleanup

Critics say long-awaited plan overlooks needs at the local level, especially in Mexico

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HALF-HEARTED applause to outright Bronx cheers.

That summarizes the range of responses being given to a keenly anticipated joint Mexico-United States plan to clean up the sullied 2,000-mile border area.

"There is no cleanup. No massive studies of groundwater in areas of waste dumping," says Dick Kamp, director of the Border Ecology Project in Naco, Arizona. "It will improve things somewhat, but I don't think it will convince anyone in Congress to vote for NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]."

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Indeed, a key free-trade advocate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, expressed disappointment in several aspects. The plan "does not put us on the path to a pollution solution.... It appears to load more burdens on agencies least equipped to carry them," he told United Press International.

Unveiled Tuesday by President Bush in Los Angeles and by Mexican Environment Secretary Patricio Chirinos in Tijuana, the plan commits the two governments to spending more than $800 million in the next three years to reduce pollution in an area beset by unbridled growth, poor infrastructure, and lax enforcement of environmental laws - particularly in Mexico.

The bulk of the funds will go toward water treatment. For example, the US will spend $125 million of the $379 budgeted for the next two years on sewage treatment plants in three border communities: San Diego, Tijuana, and Mexicali. Mexico has a $460 million three-year budget, mostly financed by World Bank loans.

One "critical step forward" in the plan, says Kamp, is the release of information about factory compliance with environmental laws. "The right to know what's going on will be a major advance if followed through on."

But overall, Kamp says the plan "throws money at big, end-of-the-pipeline projects" while ignoring the less "sexy" aspects of what needs to be done at the local level. In the Mexican city of Agua Prieta, for example, health problems abound because 83 percent of the homes flush sewage into the ground. "If you don't spend money on laying pipes, it won't do you much good to have sewage treatment plants," Kamp says.

He argues that rather than funnel funds through projects identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Mexican counterpart Sedue, federal funds should flow to state agencies that direct the money to local organizations most in touch with community problems.

And the US funds, Kamp says, should to be spent primarily in Mexico. In many twin-cities, the water pollution flows from the US side to the Mexican side. And the maquiladora manufacturing boom is in Mexico. "The majority of the pollution problem is in Mexico. Mexico needs nine to 10 times as much money as we need on this side," says Kamp.

Homero Aridjis, president of the influential Mexico City-based Group of 100 environmental organizations, agrees. "US spending versus Mexican spending on this plan, on a per capita basis, is very unequal. These are American-owned maquiladoras creating the problem. They should bear the cost of the cleanup."

Timothy Atkeson, EPA administrator for international affairs, allows the plan does not cover every need. He notes this is just the first phase of a project, which will cost "billions" to complete.

Along with the cleanup plan, the Bush administration released a study of the impact a free trade agreement would have on the border region. It argues, and many environmentalists agree, that a trade pact would shift industrial growth to Mexico's interior, slowing growth and pollution along the border.

Environmentalists see NAFTA as an opportunity to address pollution woes long ignored. "Both presidents should remember this is the first agreement of its kind which will closely link commerce and the environment," Aridjis says. "It's important they get it right as a model for future pacts."

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