San Diego Union Tribune

June 23, 2004

Abandoned smelter gets near to cleanup
Mexico to sign pact on long-awaited job

By Joe Cantlupe and Sandra Dibble

WASHINGTON After years of negotiations, the Mexican government is expected to sign an agreement tomorrow to begin a long-awaited cleanup of the abandoned lead smelter Metales y Derivados in Tijuana.

Under the agreement between U.S. and Mexican government agencies, Mexico is contributing $500,000, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will pay $85,000 toward removing dozens of 55-gallon drums and thousands of tons of hazardous debris from the former plant on Otay Mesa above the Chilpancingo neighborhood.

The money is for the first phase of cleanup work, and it will be spent to secure the site and to begin removing the contaminated material, said Enrique Villegas Ibarra, the director of ecology for Baja California.

The first part of the project, involving removal of 2,500 tons of waste, is expected to take three to four months. The entire project will require removal of 23,000 tons, which could take five years and cost $7 million, according to environmentalists.

"After so many years of struggle, we're off to a good start," said Lourdes Lujan, a member of Colectivo Chilpancingo Pro Justicia Ambiental, a neighborhood group that has been clamoring to have the site cleaned up.

The agreement, which comes a decade after the plant was closed, was the result of intensified negotiations in recent weeks involving national and state Mexican officials, environmentalists and the EPA, U.S. officials said.

"We feel very pleased and very grateful to (have) the Mexican government work with us, and they are finally coming up with some money to begin clean up," said Amelia Simpson, director of the border environmental justice campaign for the Environmental Health Coalition, the San Diego-based watchdog group, which has pressed for the cleanup for years. "They are doing what the community deserves."

Simpson characterized tomorrow's proposed signing of an agreement between environmental officials and the Mexican government as "historic, a model for future relationships to improve the environment."

"Mexico reached agreement to work with us," Simpson said. "This may be the first such community-government agreement regarding cleanup of toxic sites. It is an agreement of collaboration."

The EPA is involved in the initial steps of the cleanup effort because the longtime Metales owner, Jose Kahn, is a resident of San Diego. Kahn has said in previous interviews that he unsuccessfully sought money to assist in the cleanup.

Mexican officials shuttered Metales y Derivados in 1994 after finding a great deal of toxic waste on the property.

"We call this the stabilization phase that will result in immediate risk reduction" of potential hazards in the area, said Emily Pimentel, the EPA's environmental protection specialist.

Mexico has drafted a four-phase plan for removing waste from the site. The first phase includes "removal, stabilization of waste and security of the site to prevent access/trespassing," environmental officials said.

The other phases include remedial planning for long-term cleanup, detailed final cleanup and monitoring of the site.

To help pay for the cleanup, the state of Baja California has also requested a $700,000 loan through the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission, a binational agency that reviews projects for funding by the North American Development Bank.

In the first phase, authorities may remove at least 50 drums and sacks of contaminants seen as an immediate threat to nearby residents.

Pollutants detected at the site include: lead; arsenic; antimony, which can cause problems with the eyes, lungs, heart and stomach; and cadmium, a leading cause of renal disease, according to the Commission on Environmental Cooperation.

Tomorrow, Mexico's environmental secretary, Alberto Cardenas Jimenez, and EPA administrator Mike Leavitt, are expected to attend a signing ceremony in Tijuana.

Other officials expected to attend include Baja California Governor Eugenio Elorduy Walther, and officials of Colectivo Chilpancingo Pro Justicia Ambiental.

No decision has been made on what will happen with the property after the cleanup.

In 1998, residents of Colonia Chilpancingo filed a petition with the environmental oversight commission established by the North American Free Trade Agreement, asserting that Mexico had failed to enforce its environmental laws.

Three years later, a NAFTA board confirmed that the site represented a "grave risk to human health" but, with no enforcement mechanism, no cleanup resulted.

Cyrus Reed, head of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, said the Metales case represents changes in the manner in which Mexico is handling toxic wastes.

"There is a move, and recognition, in Mexico that they have to do something about toxic waste sites. Metales is just one of dozens of them," he said.