San Diego Union-Tribune

June 16, 2001

NAFTA agency ripped for not taking action on Tijuana toxic site


WASHINGTON -- Border activists yesterday criticized an environmental monitoring agency created by NAFTA for failing to take any significant action more than a year after it began investigating a Tijuana toxic waste site.

"A year ago, we were very, very pleased about an investigation," said Cesar Luna, an attorney and member of the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition. "But now we have no answers. It's totally ridiculous, it's almost insulting."

Luna criticized the North American Commission for Environmental
Cooperation, which announced in May 2000 it would begin the investigation. The property in question is a long-abandoned industrial site that contains some 6,600 metric tons of battery acid and other waste within a few hundred yards of Colonia Chilpancingo.

Thirteen months ago, the commission approved a resolution saying it would prepare a "factual record" to determine whether Mexico "is failing to effectively enforce its environmental law" at the former Metales y Derivados lead smelting plant.

The commission includes representatives from Canada, Mexico and the United States. Although the agency lacks formal enforcement powers, environmentalists have looked to the commission to monitor compliance with environmental regulations along the northern and southern borders of the United States.

The San Diego Environmental Health Coalition initially filed its complaint about the Tijuana site with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation in October 1998. Nearly three years later, Luna and other activists contend that the commission's slow response to the Tijuana case undermines the spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which created the agency.

The Montreal-based agency's staff has not completed the fact-finding review, in part, because it had not received detailed information from Mexico about the site, sought months ago, said spokesman Charles Dickson.

Meanwhile, the commission has begun reviewing soil samples and examining lead levels within the vicinity of the Tijuana dump, located in a neighborhood of 1,000 families.

"We are in the process of developing a draft factual record," said Dickson. "Our hope is that it will be ready to convey to (Canada, Mexico and the United States) sometime this summer."

But Dickson conceded there is no time limit for the commissioners to vote on the staff recommendations.

Commissioners, including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
administrator Christie Whitman and other top officials of Mexico and Canada, are expected to meet later this month in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The Metales y Derivados plant was closed in March 1994, leaving behind battery casings, metal scraps and contaminated structures and equipment, environmental activists said.

In the early 1990s, civil complaints were filed against former operators of the site. Last year, the former owners began discussing cleanup options with Mexican authorities, but no agreements have been reached, according to U.S. environmental officials.

"This shouldn't be taking so long. We are tired of meetings and discussions," said Luna. "The site is continuing to deteriorate."