'IT'S a good thing," opines Ramon, running a finger across the top of a dust-free television set. "A few weeks ago, everything here was covered in asbestos dust," says the repair shop owner.
Ramon and his neighbors may be happy. But across the street, the dust-spewing machines at the Balatas Eagle company are silent. For the first time since 1947, work has ceased at this family-run brake-lining factory. Six employees are out of work. Bills are piling up on the desk of owner Gilberto Pelaez Ontiveros.
"We know [Mexico] City is polluted. But people still need to work to eat," he says.
Balatas Eagle, which was shut down April 11 by Mexico's Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE), is only one of many businesses shut down by the government as part of a high-profile campaign to clean up Mexico's polluted environs.
Since April, 226 factories in the Mexico City area - including international companies such as General Motors Corporation, E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., and the Coca-Cola Company - have been hit by partial or total closure orders for failing to comply with Mexico's environmental laws. Nationwide, another 112 companies have been sanctioned.
Thanks to this effort, and other recent "green" measures, Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is winning international praise. Tomorrow, World Environment Day, Mr. Salinas is expected to get the first so-called "Green Nobel" prize, one of five environmental awards by United Earth, an organization tied to the United Nations.
Mexican ecologist Alfonso Cipres Villareal says "the real prize should go to the citizens and groups which have pressured the politicians into taking action."
Still, environmentalists here generally applaud what they consider to be a long overdue effort. Mexico City is one of the world's most polluted cities. Roughly 18 million people and 35,000 factories share this mega-metropolis that produces 35 percent of Mexico's gross national product.
Until April, nine SEDUE inspectors policed the entire Mexico City valley. Now there are 50.
"The high [air] pollution levels in December and January provoked a fresh effort to reduce contaminants," says SEDUE spokesman Eduardo Garcia Vaen.
But political observers and environmentalists suspect the latest crackdown has been motivated by something more than excess contaminants. They note that the burst of environmental enforcement coincided with a campaign by United States environmental groups to derail congressional approval of "fast track" authority for the North American Free Trade Agreement. It is argued that under a free-trade pact, many US companies will move south (as have numerous California furniture manufacturers recently) to avoid
US environmental laws.
"For decades nothing happened on environmental issues. Now this. There's no question the free-trade negotiations are pushing the changes," says Armando Baez, director of Atmospheric Sciences at the National University of Mexico.
Despite opposition from labor and environmentalists, the US Congress on April 24 renewed the president's fast-track authority for the talks. This means Congress may vote "yes" or "no" on a treaty negotiated by the administration, but can't amend it.
Negotiations are expected to begin in June and last until late this year or early next. Environmental regulations will not be included in the pact. But the administration indicates an environ- mental rider may be attached to the treaty. Meanwhile, Mexican and US environmentalists question the crackdown's sincerity.
"Will this last past the free-trade negotiations?" asks Mr. Cipres. Big companies, he says, "have the political connections to avoid major sanctions. This is a symbolic effort which hits the smallest companies hardest."
Mr. Garcia, the SEDUE spokesman, denies favoritism. But he allows that small companies are less likely to have money for pollution control equipment. SEDUE chief Patricio Chirinos Calero said May 6 that more than 1,000 factories along the US-Mexico border, many of them belonging to large US and other companies, would also be subject to more intense inspections.
The current inspection effort, say SEDUE officials, is focusing on 1,012 companies in the Mexico City area that were notified in the last year of violations and given a chance to correct them.
So far, only 25 companies have installed antipollution equipment as promised. Most of 226 other inspected factories have had partial plant closures until a plan for fixing problems is submitted. The Mexican government has set up a $100 million loan fund companies can tap for pollution studies and equipment purchases, but it has not been used.
Several companies contacted say they had no previous visits before the April crackdown began. "The first time we heard anything was when they arrived April 5 and shut down part of our equipment. Then, on April 11 they closed us down completely," says Mr. Pelaez of Balatas Eagle. He filed his pollution-reduction plan April 29 and says: "We're ready to cooperate."
But his factory is still closed, awaiting a SEDUE response.
"The technical studies take time," Garcia says. SEDUE tech-nicians say Balatas is among the worst violators they have seen.
Meanwhile, one of Du Pont's paint and plastic plants here continues production following an April 24 SEDUE inspection. Sections of the plant were shut for a few days for excessive dust and vapor emissions, SEDUE says.
Du Pont's engineers dispute SEDUE's claims, and SEDUE is allowing the plant to stay open while Du Pont tests its emissions.
"We are certain the data will show we're well within SEDUE standards," says Joaquin Carmona, a Du Pont spokesman says.