US, Mexico Hit Snags in Their Trade Alliance

Southern neighbor complains of imbalance in handling problems related to environment

DESPITE all the talk of bi-national cooperation that surrounded passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) last year, when it comes to environmental cleanup along the US-Mexico border, cooperation is in short supply.

Tensions between local leaders in Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora surfaced at a border meeting on health in mid-June. Mexican officials had reacted angrily in February when the mayor of Nogales, Ariz., criticized them for failing to identify the source of a potentially explosive fuel spill in the joint sewer system that forced the evacuation of 5,000 people.

``If it weren't for the commerce on our side, maybe Nogales, Ariz., wouldn't be here,'' said Dr. Ernesto Rivera-Claisse, Sonora's Secretary of Public Health. ``We all have the good and evil of the border,'' he said. ``We're here to help each other, not to blame.''

The exchange illustrates the complex reality of the entire US-Mexican border, where two countries with different resources and priorities come together in single, interdependent communities.

The task of solving environmental problems - including agricultural runoff and industrial messes - is complicated. For one thing, there is disparity in wealth between the United States and Mexico. Also, the decision-makers who hold the purse strings are in Washington and Mexico City, thousands of miles from the border. ``Now that NAFTA has passed, the momentum to do something has died down,'' says Dick Kamp, head of the Border Ecology Project in Naco, Ariz.

Nogales, Ariz., with a population of 20,000, is directly adjacent to Nogales, Sonora, a booming Mexican city of more than 250,000, with about 100 US-owned factories. As a result, the US town must confront environmental problems far out of proportion to its size.

Air pollution from the US-owned factories, a burning dump, squatters' campfires, truck traffic, and unpaved roads all blow across the border from Sonora. Water pollution in the form of industrial runoff and raw sewage flows through an open canal into United States territory. The lack of plumbing and sanitation in the shanty towns where Mexican factory workers live poses a public-health threat to people on both sides. In mid-June, cholera bacteria was discovered in Nogales' binational sewer system.

In reponse to the problems in Nogales, the State of Arizona has formed a task force and funded several studies. On the national level, US Rep. Sam Coppersmith (D) of Arizona and five other congressmen have introduced two pieces of legislation to fund water-treatment systems.

One bill would spend $60 million this year and $50 million a year for the next four years to provide clean water and sewage treatment for the estimated 350,000 people who live in small, unincorporated border towns called colonias.

THE other bill authorizes the Border Environment Cooperation Commission and the North American Development Bank (NAD), two agencies created by side agreements to NAFTA, to fund joint waste-water treatment plants.

Both bills are endorsed by the Clinton administration and, Congressman Coppersmith said, would deliver on promises made during NAFTA negotiations to clean up the border.

The Mexican government, which just received a $368 million World Bank loan to build border infrastructure, must match US contributions to the NAD Bank, Coppersmith said.

But activists such as Kamp remain skeptical that the NAD Bank, which is supposed to depend primarily on private money, will be able to attract investors.

``These projects are not going to pay for themselves,'' Mr. Kamp says. ``The majority of people in Mexico make $5 a day. Who's going to pay for operation and maintenance?''

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