San Diego Union Tribune

August 6, 2005

Cleanup of toxic waste at Tijuana site is praised
Community groups: More work needed

By Joe Cantlupe

WASHINGTON – Federal environmental officials say they have cleaned up most of the worst toxic waste left at the Metales site in Tijuana over the past decade, but a local watchdog group cautioned that more work has to be done.

The removal of the waste ends what authorities describe as the first phase of the yearlong cleanup, which involved the removal of dozens of 55-gallon drums and sacks filled with lead wastes left at the former battery recycling plant.

At least 2,000 tons of waste has been removed from the site, which is in the Chilpancingo neighborhood. Environmental Protection Agency officials said they were pleased with the progress of the work and described it as the result of bilateral cooperation between U.S. and Mexican authorities.

Mexican officials in 1994 closed Metales y Derivados plant, which violated pollution standards set by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"The drums and sacks, they are all gone," said Emily Purinto, U.S.-Mexican border coordinator for the EPA. "In addition, they've done really good work, clearing a lot of debris. It's pretty much clean. It looks different."

As a result, officials are now considering long-range plans for the site, although an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 tons of waste – not as toxic as the lead residue – remains, officials said.

Though community groups are pleased with the removal of some wastes, they said authorities still have much work to do.

"It's been a little more than a year, and there's still a lot (of waste) left," said Amelia Simpson, head of the border environmental justice campaign for the Environmental Health Coalition.

"There's still mountains of stuff. A whole pile of batteries. As the community looks at it, there's still a lot to be removed."

But Theresa Pimentel of the EPA said remnants at the site "are not considered a highly contaminated waste, compared with the material that was removed."

"It's this type of less contaminated material that we'd like to figure out what to do with as part of our next phase of work," she said.

For now, the material is covered, Pimentel said.

The U.S. government contributed $80,000 and the Mexican government has planned $250,000, Simpson said.

"But there is no commitment for more funds," she said.

Pimentel said officials are trying to determine "how this new funding would be used."

To carry out the cleanup effort, Mexican authorities took over ownership of the property from New Frontier Co., which had managed the battery-recycling plant.

The company's owner, Jose Kahn, moved to San Diego from Mexico in 1995 after Mexican authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on environmentally related charges. Kahn died this year, officials said.

Although neither Kahn nor his company paid anything for the cleanup, environmentalists said it was ironic that Kahn's home in Point Loma is up for sale by his heirs for about $1 million.

"This was a criminal case that was never followed up," said Simpson of the Environmental Health Coalition.

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