What a Wasteland

"Go punch around with geo probes that test for vapors, and track the sources down, and someone better check the wells that aren't along the wash on the Sonora side, because my guess is they're contaminated as well."

Kamp believes the health of residents on both sides of the border has been severely harmed.

"The contamination spans across so broad an area, and is so ubiquitous, and there have been so many years of dumping, I think it would be shocking if there haven't been [health] consequences, because people have been exposed for some time now," Kamp says.

Health statistics in Mexico--like nearly all government data--are rife with both misinformation and disinformation. No credible numbers for the rate of cancer and lupus in Nogales, Sonora, are available.

However, in 1992, the Sonoran Health Department reported 17 cases of anencephaly--stillborn babies without brains--in Nogales since 1990.

The Sonoran Health Department has not released more current data on birth defects in Nogales, but during a 1993 conference in El Paso, Mexican officials said the rate of anencephaly in Mexican border cities was four to 10 times above average.

There has been no indication of an abnormally high rate of anencephaly in Nogales, Arizona.

In 1993, however, eight families in Brownsville, Texas, filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. owners of five maquiladoras in Matamoros, Chihuahua, including Zenith Electronics, alleging that their solvents contaminated the groundwater and caused anencephaly. (The rate of anencephaly in Brownsville is three times above average; 126 cases were reported from 1980 to 1992.)

The maquilas settled the lawsuit out of court for a reported $10,714 per brainless baby.

U.S. law does not require American maquila owners to comply with American environmental standards. The U.S. also lacks the jurisdiction to enforce the laws of Mexico, whose environmental protection agencies are vastly understaffed and underfunded.

During the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico promised repeatedly to enforce environmental laws, and signed a side agreement to NAFTA that prohibits any member country from creating a "polluters' haven."

Two months after NAFTA was ratified, instead of tightening enforcement, Mexico scaled back several of its key environmental laws, including those governing environmental impact statements for new businesses.

In maquiladoras, as in all Mexican industries, sound environmental practices are practically voluntary. And many maquilas choose to illegally dump hazardous waste (or hire someone to do it for them) instead of shipping it into the U.S. for proper treatment and disposal.

It costs a maquila $150 to $700 per barrel to ship hazardous waste back to the U.S., depending on the type of waste. Dumping it down a sewer nicely pads monthly profits.

Hiring a materialista--independent hazardous-waste contractors in Mexico, often of dubious integrity--is also an attractive alternative. They charge $20 to $40 per barrel disposed.

Even harsh critics of maquiladoras agree the industry has cleaned up its act somewhat in the past 10 years. That's due in part to media attention.

Also, maquilas are becoming more environmentally conscious. Several highly toxic but common chemicals have been replaced with newer, milder ones.

"The chemicals we saw inside maquiladoras in a 1994 inventory were much better than in 1988," says Kamp.

General Motors has installed self-contained wastewater treatment plants inside 31 of its maquilas.

Still, "midnight dumping" is presumed widespread. How widespread is anyone's guess--literally. There are no specific inventories of chemicals shipped from the U.S. to maquilas in Mexico, and no one keeps track of exactly how much waste comes back.

"There's just no way to do that," says Chris Reiner, director of hazardous waste for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region IX, which includes Arizona and California. "It's theoretically possible, but it's not practically realistic.

"Different plants use so many different processes and have different efficiencies that they could all produce different amounts of waste starting with the same amount of the same chemicals."

In 1988, Mexico enacted a law requiring that hazardous chemicals imported must be re-exported to the U.S., but like most environmental laws in Mexico, it's simply not enforced.

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that maquiladoras in Sonora generated 5.5 million tons of hazardous waste last year. Documents at the Department of Transportation indicate that only 11.9 percent of it came back to the United States.

Mexican officials estimated in 1995 that only 6.2 million tons of toxic waste are generated each year by maquiladoras in all of Mexico. Of that, they said, only 15 percent is disposed of properly.

The World Bank estimates that 40 percent of all of Mexico's industrial effluents are released directly into sewers without treatment. The result is substandard drinking water.

"Maquilas must realize that pollution of this type is contrary to the long-term productivity of their operations in Mexico," says David Eaton, an analyst with National Law Center of Inter-American Free Trade, based in Tucson.

Wastewater treatment in Mexico is rare. Only 10 percent of the country's industrial and municipal waste receives any. Estimates say it would take more than $1 billion to upgrade Mexico's wastewater treatment facilities to meet the demand expected in 2000.

The Center for Environmental Quality in Monterrey estimates it would cost $1.5 billion to build proper disposal facilities for hazardous industrial waste in Mexico.

Placido Dos Santos, border manager for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, says the biggest environmental problem on the border is low Mexican wages, which force workers to live in substandard housing without sewer systems. Meager pay also causes workers to drive older, less efficient cars and pollute the air in the winter with open fires to stay warm.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Phoenix Concert Tickets