Union Tribune

October 26, 2003

EPA ends funding for system tracking waste from Mexico


WASHINGTON The Environmental Protection Agency has shut down the only U.S. database that measures the transfer of hazardous waste from Mexico into the United States.

The Haztraks system was abandoned with little fanfare after EPA officials decided the $250,000 it costs to run the system each year would be better spent elsewhere.

"The EPA is no longer investing resources into Haztraks," said Laura Gentile, spokeswoman for the agency's Region 9 office in San Francisco. "While we acknowledge it performs a useful function, we had significant budget cuts for the coming year. We had to make tough decisions."

Environmental organizations that monitor waste along the border say Haztraks' demise, which occurred sometime during the summer, means neither inspectors nor federal officials will be able to say with certainty how much waste is being transported across the border.

"To not have a system to track the country's (hazardous) waste is appalling," said Amelia Simpson of the Environmental Health Coalition of San Diego, a watchdog group.

Mexico has its own tracking system, but it isn't as sophisticated as Haztraks. There are also state systems, but none has a capacity similar to Haztraks.

The most recent Haztraks reports, completed in 1997, showed that 11,052 tons of hazardous waste were shipped from Mexico to the United States, a 17 percent increase from the previous year.

There are more than 3,000 maquiladora factories on the Mexican side of the border, many of them U.S.-owned plants that manufacture products ranging from semiconductors to textiles. During the assembly process, they generate toxic and hazardous wastes, including lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, all known to cause cancer in humans.

From 1998 to 2000, toxic waste produced by maquiladoras increased 300 percent, according to the industry group Solid Waste Online.

In San Diego County, the Otay Mesa border crossing is the only assigned depot for the import and export of hazardous wastes. Officials said nearly half the trucks inspected there routinely haul hazardous wastes.

The United States and Mexico tried to lay the groundwork for dealing with hazardous waste in the mid-1980s under the La Paz agreement. It requires U.S. companies that establish maquiladoras in Mexico to ship any hazardous waste they produce back to the United States, because Mexico lacks proper disposal facilities.

The agreement didn't establish a formal tracking system.

The Haztraks database system, created soon after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement was adopted, was supposed to be the U.S. government's answer to monitoring the waste.

Because of problems with an EPA contractor, the database at one point was at least two years behind schedule in collecting information about the waste. Some locations in the Southwest either failed to submit any data or submitted inaccurate information to the database, several officials said.

Critics said one of the problems was the government's reliance on a paper-based system that became unmanageable.

Last spring, as many as 10,000 documents detailing where waste was generated and where it was sent were piled in stacks 4 feet high, waiting to be entered in the database. Government officials would not say what the backlog was when Haztraks was shut down.

While Haztraks wasn't perfect, some officials say that it was better than nothing.

"There's not going to be one central place for the material," said Steve Niemeyer, border affairs policy analyst at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "There's no specific database to look into the question. It's a disappointment."

Although Haztraks could be about six months behind in data collection, Niemeyer said the commission's investigators found the data useful because it helped them decide which sites to visit.

With the loss of Haztraks, "we get further and further away from the commitment to keep environmental standards high," said Katherine Kopinak, a sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario and former scholar at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego. "There seems to be less political will."

Simpson, with the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition, said companies provide conflicting information about what they are manufacturing and what kind of waste is being generated.

Maquiladoras are "coming and going very quickly," Simpson said.

"Then they leave behind more sites," she said. "They operate in an environment of secrecy."

Officials with the Montreal-based North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation are examining ways the United States, Canada and Mexico can improve the tracking of toxic wastes. The commission expects to discuss it next month, said Tim Whitehouse, its legal policy director.

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.