San Diego Have two of San Diego's most prominent environmentalists sold out to NAFTA? Lori Saldaña, ex-chair of the San Diego/Imperial Sierra Club, and Diane Takvorian, Environmental Health Coalition executive director, have both accepted White House appointments as advisors on a NAFTA environmental commission charged with helping clean up the 2000-mile border.
"I think I got chosen for this council through the regional EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) office up in San Francisco," says Saldaña, who's known for campaigning for improvements to the city's wastewater system as well as organizing Earth Day celebrations in San Diego. "They worked with me on the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant project. I suspect they sent my name back to Washington."
"Congressman Filner nominated me," says Takvorian, one of the founders of San Diego's Environmental Health Coalition. "And, yes, we were staunch opponents of the NAFTA agreement. We continue to feel strongly that this is not a fair trade agreement. It's indeed free trade, but it's not fair for the workers in these plants who are making a wage that is not a livable wage, even in Mexico or in the border region. And there is very little in the way of environmental protection. This [NAFTA] Environmental Side Agreement was slapped on at the end, from my perspective, strictly as a political maneuver to get some additional support for NAFTA and to get it passed. So Lori and I did work [against] NAFTA."
What's more, they know the organization they're joining lacks the money, ability, and the will to carry out the $20 billion worth of work estimated necessary to clean up the many toxic disasters spread along the U.S.-Mexico border.
They have been appointed to the Advisory Council of the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC). In fact, the original NAFTA missionaries, President Salinas de Gortari of Mexico and President George Bush, didn't want any such environmental-watchdog bodies created along with NAFTA at all. BECC was born only after Clinton won the presidency. During his campaign, Clinton had promised unions and powerful environmental groups that he would insist on side agreements to NAFTA to guarantee some control over businessmen who abused Mexico's less developed environmental laws.
But author Joel Simon says Clinton's pre-election desperation for support guaranteed the council would be toothless. "By promising to negotiate side agreements, thereby garnering the support of at least some environmental groups," he writes in his book, Endangered Mexico, "Clinton created a political dilemma. While Democrats in Congress were saying they would back NAFTA only if Clinton came up with strong side agreements, the Republican members who already supported the deal were threatening to back out if the side agreements added too many new regulations. Getting NAFTA passed under those conditions required an extraordinarily difficult balancing act. Clinton had to come up with mechanisms that looked good on paper -- thereby placating the Democrats -- but lacked teeth, thereby pleasing the Republicans."
The results, says Simon, were the Commission on Environmental Cooperation, a "court" to resolve environmental disputes -- except it has no enforcement powers other than what one official calls "the public-shame factor" -- and the Border Environment Cooperation Commission.
The commission's job is to evaluate funding for environmental infrastructure projects. At regular meetings, representatives from border communities can ask for money for projects, typically water treatment plants. If the commission approves, the NAFTA-created North American Development Bank will give them low-interest loans to build their project. San Diego got $17 million from NADBank for its South Bay water treatment project.
The only trouble is neither the commission nor the bank can lend money for the border's most desperately needed environmental problems, toxic cleanup projects. Under NAFTA, the bank is supposed to be self-financing, so it can only lend money for commercially viable projects like sewage treatment and landfill. These projects, says Simon, represent "only a small portion of the border's environmental backlog."
"The push to implement NAFTA quickly...also meant squandering a unique chance to make some headway against the border environmental crisis," Simon writes in his 1997 book.
So what are Saldaña and Takvorian doing in an organization like BECC?
"We don't come at this thinking that NADBank and the BECC are some panacea to environmental pollution," says Takvorian. "We think that clearly there were major problems with the whole structure to begin with. We talked a lot about it. When Congressman Filner approached me and said he'd like to nominate me, this was an organizational decision on the Environmental Health Coalition's part. It was not an individual Diane Takvorian decision. We felt strongly that there are components within the side-agreement and in the mandate for the BECC that could be expanded to actually do [effective toxic cleanup work]."
You don't have to go farther than Tijuana's Otay maquiladora area to see the kind of toxic hotspots Takvorian is talking about. Inside the abandoned lead-smelting plant of Metales y Derivados, piles of smashed car and truck batteries have been left to leak their toxic remains to a workers' settlement in the valley below.
Metales y Derivados is owned by a San Diego company, the New Frontier Trading Corporation. Takvorian's Environmental Health Coalition is fighting to get rid of the estimated 6000 metric tons of lead slag that sits exposed at the site.
Every time a wind blows it becomes dangerous to breathe. Every time it rains, poisonous run-off winds its way down to the houses in the valley and the dairy fields nearby and into the Alamar River, which runs into the Tijuana River. The health coalition has even taken the case to NAFTA's "enviro-court," the Commission on Environmental Cooperation, but Takvorian isn't holding her breath. Maurilio Sánchez Pachuca, unofficial leader of Colonia Chilpancingo, the health-threatened settlement down in the valley, isn't either. Pachuca has been leading a crusade against industrial polluters like Metales y Derivados for 25 years, with no result.
"Governments come and go, and nothing ever changes," he says.
"I don't think that the BECC interprets its role as fixing a Chilpancingo situation," admits Takvorian. "It absolutely should. But I don't think it does, and I think part of what I see as my job is to help the BECC reinterpret its mission and to ask it to address those issues."