Two Nations in One Neighborhood Clean Up Their Air
El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, cooperate to curb pollution from vehicle emissions and industry
EL PASO, TEXAS
ON horseback or in pale green Suburban trucks, the United States Border Patrol has clamped down on illegal immigration in this desert metropolis of 700,000.Skip to next paragraph
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Authorities are powerless, though, to stop another unwanted flow: air pollution from the sputtering cars, dirt roads, and home-grown industries of Juarez. That Mexican city of 1.5 million and El Paso, Texas, interlock like puzzle pieces, separated only by the Rio Grande.
Citizens of this essentially single, bi-national community have not waited for Washington and Mexico City to solve the air-quality problem. Instead, they have initiated action. ''The regulatory community wasn't going to clean up our air,'' says Danny Vickers, an El Paso businessman who chairs the Paso del Norte Air Quality Task Force.''The community has got to stand up and say, 'We're behind you.' It's a matter of survival.''
Scrubbing smog-filled skies
Mr. Vickers's bi-national task force is composed of businessmen, educators, environmentalists, local officials, and local representatives of state and federal regulatory agencies. Formed in 1993, it has launched pollution-reduction projects to scrub the smog-filled skies that now rest on the cities' shared airshed like a dingy sombrero.
Excessive amounts of carbon monoxide, fine dust particles, and ground-level ozone put El Paso on the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) list of cities not in compliance with the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
''The air quality here is awful,'' says Matthew Witosky, the EPA's new border liaison in El Paso.
One reason is that Juarez residents and those of El Paso own older cars that lack modern pollution-control equipment. ''We're the dumping ground for used vehicles in the Southwest,'' says Jesus Reynoso, supervisor of the El Paso City-County air-quality program. Vehicle ages average four years in the US, seven in El Paso, and 13 in Juarez.
Many Juarez residents buy a clunker in the US for a few hundred dollars, drive it till it drops, abandon it, and buy another. This ''disposable fleet,'' lacking documents and pollution controls, numbers more than 60,000, Mr. Reynoso says. (The peso devaluation has stalled the practice, though. Purchases at El Paso used-car lots have fallen 80 percent.)
In recent years, however, air quality has shown improvement. El Paso has had no violations for particulates or fine dust in two years and for carbon monoxide in a year. Heat causes ground-level ozone, or smog, to form, but last summer when temperatures topped 100 degrees F. for 24 days in a row, the city exceeded ozone limits on just five days.
Officials attribute the progress to wintertime sales of cleaner-burning oxygenated gasoline in El Paso, and to road-paving projects and vehicle-inspection programs in both cities. Changing the spark plugs and points in a Juarez vehicle, Reynoso says, can cut its emissions 99 percent.
Inspections programs lacking
But more needs to be done, say environmentalists. Seventy percent of Juarez's streets are unpaved, and traffic thereon launches dust particulates skyward. Both cities lack strong inspection programs, but their commitment is questionable.
For instance, in 1994 Juarez residents could not renew their automobile registration without first obtaining an inspection sticker. That led to scenes like one in December at a Juarez fairground that had been turned into a one-stop testing and registration center.
Hundreds of drivers, their vehicles idling smokily, waited in line more than five hours for the five-minute inspection. One was Joel Antillon, a maquiladora worker who huddled in the cab of his splotchy red 1975 GMC pickup with his mother, pregnant wife, and two sons.
Suddenly the truck, purchased in Texas for $600, began to spew water. Mr. Antillon climbed into the cavernous engine compartment and shut off the flow with a pair of pliers.
''It has a good engine,'' Antillon says, confident the truck would pass.
''But it's ugly!'' his mother laments.
Even if Antillon's truck passed, half of the 200,000 vehicles tested last year failed, and Juarez mechanics lack training in how to repair the problems.
Registration income dropped so drastically that the state of Chihuahua faced a cash crunch. This year, inspection enforcement is still mandatory but not a registration prerequisite. The state has turned over inspection enforcement to Juarez. Its success remains to be seen.