Air-Polluting Tale of Two Cities

Juarez and El Paso won't breathe easy until plants in Juarez, operating under less-strict Mexican environmental law, are cleaned up

THE El Paso metropolitan area has some of the worst air quality in North America. Much of the pollution in the region comes from Ciudad Juarez, El Paso's burgeoning industrial neighbor across the Rio Grande. And although El Paso has spent millions of dollars to comply with federal clean air regulations, local officials have found that the two cities must work together to effectively address the problem.

Last week, local, state, and federal officials from the United States and Mexico met again in Juarez to negotiate the details of an international air quality management district that will monitor emissions and air quality and administer technology transfers to improve air quality in both cities.

One of the largest and fastest growing cities on the US-Mexico border, the El Paso-Juarez metropolitan area has between 1.5 and 2 million residents. ``The controls we are currently putting in place only affect El Paso, about 700,000 people,'' explains Jesus Reynoso, air quality program director for the El Paso City-County Health and Environmental District. ``It's not possible to reduce all the pollution if you are only controlling one-third of the population.''

Considered a ``nonattainment'' area under the US Clean Air Act of 1990, El Paso violates US standards for ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated that the city reduce its hydrocarbon emissions by 15 percent.

Reynoso says that El Paso residents are now using lower-polluting, oxygenated gasoline. Also, city businesses and agencies are converting hundreds of vehicles to clean-burning fuels like natural gas. The city has begun paving alleys to reduce airborne dust and has placed restrictions on wood burning.

In addition, city residents may soon have restricted access to hydrocarbon-releasing consumer products such as floor wax and paint.

Yet Reynoso and others believe more air pollution reductions are possible on the south side of the river, where about 400 brick kilns employ antiquated technology and several hundred maquiladoras (export-oriented border factories) operate under less stringent Mexican pollution laws.

The US Department of Energy (DOE), including the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory, have agreed to collect data and assist businesses in Juarez that want to convert to cleaner technologies.

Using a laser-based system known as lidar (short for light detecting and ranging), Los Alamos will be able to measure air pollution concentrations throughout the region. Clay Heskett, a technology manager at Los Alamos, says lidar was developed for missile tracking. ``This is a cold-war technology that's now being used for environmental characterization,'' he said.

The laboratory will also work with Juarez brick makers to develop more efficient kilns that use less energy and produce less pollution. Mr. Heskett says most kilns in Juarez are fueled by wood and/or sawdust. The Los Alamos program will encourage brickmakers to convert to natural gas or liquified petroleum gas.

Los Alamos and Sandia will use their computers to model air flow patterns and develop wind maps for the region. ``Air can start in El Paso, go to Juarez and be back in El Paso that afternoon,'' explains Peter Emerson, a senior economist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, which has been a driving force behind the air district concept.

``All the good pollution-reduction potential is in Juarez,'' explains Mr. Emerson. ``By taking a cooperative approach, with the investment flow coming from the US, everybody gets cleaner air.''

Eventually, Emerson believes, the region could begin cross-border trading of ``pollution credits,'' in which industries doing better in meeting governments standard in effect sell their ``clean air''' to dirtier industries - a concept not yet tried in international areas.

Several hurdles will have to be cleared before the air district becomes a reality. The expensive task of air modeling must be completed. Altogether, the DOE, EPA, the State of Texas, and SEDESOL - the Mexican equivalent of the EPA - will spend several million dollars on the air-quality assessments.

Once all the groundwork is in place, the EPA will turn to the State Department, which will then negotiate a memorandum of understanding between the EPA and SEDESOL.

The process will likely be slowed by the political uncertainty in Mexico. The March assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and the pending presidential election in August have forced Mexican political leaders to turn their attention elsewhere.

But Mexican officials believe the project will definitely get approved. ``It's a done deal,'' said Enrique Terrazas, director of economic development for the state of Chihuahua, which includes Juarez.

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