• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

But most important, Mexico's version of the environmental protection agency will not publicize which maquila plants it has found to be noncompliant. This is considered to be a private matter between the government and the industrial plant. Concerned citizens cannot find out which of their industrial neighbors poses a threat. "Without this information," the report says, "it is impossible to know if enforcement is leading to a cleaner environment."

Reality hits home high on a mesa, inland from downtown Tijuana, looking out over the green Cañon del Padre valley, with the township of Chilpancingo below. From up here, it looks like an idyllic riverside settlement. Distant horses graze, the colonia goes about its daily business, and cattle send up moos from muddy corrals. The valley is greenest near the shining river Alamar, a tributary of the Tijuana river. As you look up the valley you see it, too, has its own tributaries -- except they are concrete-lined runoffs racing down the valley sides from the maquiladoras above.

A few steps back from the mesa's edge are the piles of smashed batteries left by the abandoned smelter operated by Metales y Derivados, a compound piled with 6000 metric tons of lead slag, which eats its way through the cinderblock walls. Mexico's federal environmental agency shut down the plant in March 1994 but couldn't force its Chilean owner and San Diego resident, José Kahn, to clean it up. When the winds blow, lead dust swirls into the valley. When it rains, the lead leaches into the Alamar River and the surrounding grasslands where children play.

"At the heart of the problem," says the report, "is the lack of adequate reporting of hazardous waste generation and management by the companies themselves and the absence of [the public's] 'right to know.' These factors make the task of overseeing environmental compliance extremely difficult."

In 2001 it could become even more difficult. NAFTA rules say as of next year, maquiladoras will be able to "nationalize" -- become Mexican companies. If they do, they will no longer be required to return hazardous wastes to the country of origin. Mexico, says the Texas report, can expect an increase in the waste it has to handle. "Why should a maquiladora expose itself to liability in the U.S. if it can dispose of the waste -- legally -- in Mexico?"

The report quotes the Environmental Protection Agency's Reiner as saying that even in 1998 "more than 200 plants" left their foreign-corporation tax status and nationalized. But Reiner sees rays of hope. "In the last six years or so, the maquiladora industry has grown by about 50 percent. There've been 1000 new maquilas added nationally. About 80 percent of them are in the border region. There were 3310 as of July last year in all Mexico, and 737 of them are in Tijuana, far and away the greatest single concentration of maquilas, although not of employees.

"So the growth has been tremendous, but we've actually seen, in terms of how much hazardous waste is coming from Mexico, a decrease. The reason for that seems to be that they're following a similar pattern that we saw in the U.S. Even though we've had industrial growth over the last couple of decades in the U.S., we've seen hazardous-waste generation go down, because industries are beginning to realize that it costs them money to generate all this stuff. If they can make their processes a little more efficient, they save money, and it's easier for them to comply with the rules. We can tell that the 'pollution-efficiency' is improving. Even as more maquilas come on line, less hazardous waste is being generated."

Back in Tecate, Victor Ontiveros says his battle to persuade Recicladora Temarry to move away from Tecate's aquifers is not going to be easy. After all, they've just built their plant at kilometer 121 on the Mexicali-Tijuana highway, and Temarry operations manager Matt Songer says there is no fear of contamination, even though he realizes the site was built near aquifers. "We've taken every precaution," Songer says. "We have seven inches of concrete slab to protect [against any leaks]. We have 24-hour monitoring. If there are leaks, sensors will detect them."Songer says concerned citizens should be more worried about oil drainage from a nearby 1000-car junk yard and runoff from the valley's cattle and dairy farms.

But Ontiveros says he already has support from Tecate's director of civil protection and Tecate's director-general of the state commission of public services, which controls the town's water supply. "Next," he says, "I'll talk to the Tecate beer people. They've got to be interested. They get the water for their beer from our aquifers too."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!