Environmentalists Stop Waste-Treatment Plant

MEXICO CITY'S 35,000 factories create an estimated 3,000 tons of toxic residues each year. But not a single hazardous-waste treatment plant or disposal site exists in the region. ``The majority of toxic waste ends up in the rivers and is poured down the drain,'' says Ivan Restrepo, director of the Center of Ecodevelopment, a respected research organization here.

Protecol, a Mexican subsidiary of Waste Management International of Oak Brook, Ill., wants to become the recipient of some of that waste.

In 1988, Mexico's Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE) gave Protecol permission to build a hazardous-waste stabilization plant. It could handle up to 300 tons of inorganic waste annually.

But environmentalists, to date, have successfully blocked further progress.

Ecologists say the site for the plant, on the dried-up bed of Lake Texcoco, is an area of high population, an ecology zone, and situated above an aquifer of drinking water. SEDUE and Protecol officials say the ecologists are shooting from the hip.

``Yes, there's an ecological park a few kilometers away,'' Protecol spokeswoman Magdelena Mosig says. ``But it's also next to a city landfill and water treatment plant. There's 300 hectares (about 750 acres) of secured, empty, government-owned land,'' she notes.

Ms. Mosig adds that the layered-clay composition of the soil is impermeable. ``We have only encountered these conditions one other place in the world,'' she says. And the aquifers below are so salt-saturated, they are not used for drinking water.

But Mr. Restrepo counters: ``The technology is here to reduce toxic residues in the production process. The government wants to modernize. It should require modern technology in every Mexico City factory. It shouldn't let companies continue to produce contaminants and try to contain the problem afterward.''

SEDUE director of pollution prevention and control Rene Altamirano says, ``Scientifically speaking, the ecologists haven't presented a single valid reason for us to stop this plant.'' But he agrees that public opinion favors the environmentalists. ``We're temporizing until opinion changes,'' he says.

The Secretariat of Agriculture and Water Resources has the final say over the use of the land. Last January it asked SEDUE to recertify the project.

Protecol officials say SEDUE recently promised construction would start by year end. ``The waste is here. We're offering a solution, a real solution,'' Mosig says.

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