MEXICAN opposition to three proposed hazardous waste dumps in Texas is raising embarrassing questions about United States compliance with a 1983 international treaty and an avowed goal of cleaning up the polluted border region.
Coming amid the charged atmosphere of the North American free trade negotiations, the issue has become daily fodder in the Mexican press.
"It's a test case," says Alberto Szekely, a Mexico City-based public interest lawyer and adviser to the Foreign Ministry. "It tests the political willingness of the US to stick to an environmental commitment, not only in relation to the Integrated Border Environment Plan [unveiled in February] but to the La Paz agreement and any future agreements."
In the 1983 La Paz pact, Mexico and the US agreed to protect the 100 kilometers (60 miles) on either side of the border and consult on projects that may be detrimental to the health and environment in this area. All three dump sites - one for hazardous waste and two for low-level radioactive waste - fall within the agreed zone.
On March 21, environmental groups and local politicians from both sides of the Rio Grande held protests at border crossing points. In response to a diplomatic note sent by Mexico in early March, Washington agreed to high-level talks on April 22.
But Mexico's position is already clear. "There is a high risk of contamination of subterranean waters, which are an indispensable source of subsistence for the border populations of both sides," Foreign Relations Secretary Fernando Solana Morales told the residents of Ciudad Juarez on March 21.
On April 2, Mexico revoked a license given to Illinois-based Chemical Waste Management to build a toxic waste incinerator near Tijuana. A spokesman for the Secretary of Urban Development and Ecology said the act is a "signal" that Mexico is complying with the La Paz pact and expects the US to do the same.
Environmentalists say the proposed waste sites have received insufficient study. Chemical Waste Management's proposed hazardous waste dump in Dryden is in an area "riddled with moving faults, caverns, and sinkholes over the aquifer which provides water to Del Rio [Texas] and Ciudad Acuna in Mexico," says Richard Lowerre, an Austin-based attorney for the environmentalists.
A Texcor Inc. proposal for low-level radioactive waste containment facility in Spofford initially looked geographically feasible, admits Mr. Lowerre. But Mexican engineers have produced evidence that the aquifer believed to end before the dump site actually goes under the location and reemerges in Mexico, he says.
Generating the most attention is the Texas proposal for a depository of low-level radioactive hospital, industrial, and nuclear plant waste. After 10 years of picking and discarding various sites, the Texas legislature last year approved a site near the small town of Sierra Blanca.
A federal law requires US states to come up with their own nuclear waste sites by 1996. Last week the Supreme Court heard challenges to this law. A ruling is expected by July.
To meet the federal deadline, Texas is rushing into a poorly researched location, environmentalists say. On May 1, the state expects to close a $900,000 deal to buy 16,000 acres and is putting up $414,000 to file for a site license with the Texas Water Commission. "The state's spending $1.3 million without even knowing if the site is geologically or hydrologically safe," says Linda Lynch of Alert Citizens for Environmental Safety in El Paso.
Although Texas Governor Ann Richards supports this project, spokeswoman Leticia Vasquez says, "If the environmental studies don't show a high degree of confidence that there will be no impact on public health, a license won't be issued."
But Ms. Lynch calls the current and planned site studies "superficial." She notes that Texas law requires an environmental "assessment" study - far less detailed than a federal environmental impact statement.
Mexican governors raised the issue at the annual US-Mexico border state governors' conference last week in San Diego. Mexican border city officials and one federal congressman are also asking to participate in the ongoing Spofford and Dryden hearings.
"That's unprecedented. There's never been participation by the Mexican government in these hearings," says Lowerre.
Similarly, ecology groups from both sides of the border are working in unison as never before. US ecologists have seized upon the La Paz accord and brought Mexico into the fray, generating more publicity and pressure.
Some Texas officials say the La Paz agreement doesn't carry much weight, that it only requires that Mexico be notified of potentially threatening projects.
But Szekely, who participated in the La Paz negotiations, disagrees. "Notification is only the first step," he says. Quoting Article II of the agreement, he notes: "The US is obligated 'to adopt appropriate measures to prevent, reduce, and eliminate sources of pollution in its territory that effect the border zone."'