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Thursday, June 11, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bordering On Disaster: Mexico, U.S. Share Woes -- Toxic Waste, Air Pollution Mean Trouble On Both Sides

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

President Bush, who is expected to appear tomorrow at the Earth Summit in Brazil, needn't have traveled so far south to see what happens when First World and Third World pollution collide: He could find that in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico - border towns soaked in toxic waste.

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - Victoria Rojas lives at the crossroads of two worlds with two children, 15 pigs, six dogs, a few goats and chickens and, until recently, 600 drums of illegally dumped toxic waste.

The masked men in protective white suits arrived at her border-town shanty last month. Day after day, they toiled in the baking sun, gingerly loading the corroded barrels - stenciled with names such as Phillips and Du Pont - onto a cream-colored truck. Next, they would come back to remove the land itself: 4 feet of dirt in a huge arc around Rojas' squatter's home.

Rojas, 28, cradled her babies. Another is on the way, she confided: little Jaime or Cecilia, depending. Her goats roamed free; her pigs drank from a drum-clotted pond. She giggled to watch the workers.

"They look like they're on the moon," she said.

In truth, they were at ground zero of an economic and social experiment that is unprecedented in size and scope: the marriage of two huge, vastly disparate economies under the rubric of free trade.

Even as leaders of the world gather in Brazil to discuss the fragile global ecology - and the United States and Mexico work out the details of a continental trade agreement - Ciudad Juarez and a string of other border cities from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific have glimpsed the future.

For 25 years, hundreds of U.S.-owned factories have operated here with virtually no oversight; job seekers have flocked to the border, overwhelming everything from sewage systems to water supplies. All the while, local U.S. and Mexican authorities have talked past each other, with little political muscle or plan.

The result "is an environmental catastrophe," said John Audley, a fellow at the Sierra Club Center for Environmental Innovation, who worked for two years for a U.S. firm in Ciudad Juarez.

The signs of degradation are everywhere:

-- Millions of gallons of raw sewage mixed with industrial waste flow into waterways from Tijuana, Mexico, into the San Diego area, threatening wetlands and forcing U.S. officials to close beaches. Border rivers are so polluted, virtually penniless Latin immigrants pay smugglers for plastic bags to cover their legs while wading across.

-- A noxious blend of exhaust from old cars, factories and hearth fires in shantytowns creates a cloud over Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, which despite their joint population of less than 2 million have air-quality problems rivaling Los Angeles and New York.

-- In greater Brownsville, Texas (population 107,000), at least 28 women have given birth to anencephalic babies in the past two years - six times the national average. Federal health investigators say a prime suspect in causing the birth of children without fully developed brains is toxic emissions from U.S. plants operating in nearby Matamoros, Mexico. A similar number of babies with brain defects has been reported in Matamoros.

-- Then there is the nasty secret of Victoria Rojas' back yard. An undeveloped tract of land on the outskirts of town, it is favored by midnight dumpers.

More than 1,700 U.S. companies operating in Mexico under a special trade arrangement are legally required to ship all toxic waste back to the United States for treatment and disposal. But the vast majority of the waste, Mexican and U.S. officials acknowledge, is dumped illegally in Mexico, exposing residents, the land and water to potent carcinogens.

For some, all this smoke and sewage and slag is simply the price of progress - the inevitable byproduct of Mexico's struggle to shake off poverty and join the industrial world. To them, the future is reduced to a choice between economic growth and environmental conservation.

It is a dilemma that confronts scores of developing nations, whose leaders have convened for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This underpins a burgeoning North-South debate. The rich, industrial North wants the poor, resource-rich South to preserve its forests and waterways for the good of the planet; the South, unwilling to curb its ambitions, wants money and technology to do so.

Yet for Mexico, there is no choice, top Mexican officials concede: Pollution and environmental mismanagement are so extreme they are crimping growth. The exhaust is choking the machine.

There is also political pressure. Angry U.S. and Mexican border residents, environmentalists and some U.S. lawmakers have thrust concerns about Mexico's environment into negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a proposal to create a common market among Canada, Mexico and the United States. If there are no safeguards, they say, there will be no deal.

The border, all sides agree, will be the litmus test.

Richard Kiy, border specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency, observes: "The border has traditionally been the bastard child of the U.S. and Mexico."

Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a Ciudad Juarez labor lawyer, fears the Mexican government will let U.S. industries trash his nation for minimum-wage jobs.

"That's why the NAFTA is so dangerous in this country: The Mexican federal government doesn't protect its citizens. It protects industry," he said.

Like an echo across the Rio Grande, Laurance Nickey, director of El Paso's health district and a fifth-generation El Pasoan, wonders who is protecting his people.

"Even though there are two sovereign nations, two states and two distinct cities involved, for purposes of public health, there is a single population base of almost 2 million, sharing the same air, the same water, the same pollution and the same diseases on an immediate basis," he said.

Nickey combats diseases that his counterparts in Ciudad Juarez, with a budget 25 times smaller, are powerless to stop: rates of hepatitis A that are nearly five times the U.S. average, three or four times the rate of shigella dysentery, twice the rate of tuberculosis.

When Ciudad Juarez comes down with measles or chicken pox, so does El Paso.

Nickey is holding his breath against a cholera outbreak he believes is inevitable. Shantytowns on both sides of the border have no running water, garbage collection or electricity.

"It's not a matter of if. It's a question of when, where and how much," he said.

The reason is 18 miles long: an open sewage ditch, which parallels the Rio Grande, that carries Ciudad Juarez's domestic and industrial waste water. The city has no sewage-treatment facility. The fetid channel - carrying toilet paper, used prophylactics and untold chemical waste - is used to irrigate fields of cotton, alfalfa and, Nickey fears, vegetables.

"Listen," Nickey said, " I pray a lot, and I'm not a churchy person."

Without development and basic infrastructure in Mexico, efforts to protect the environment will be futile, Mexican and U.S. officials acknowledge.

Such talk makes free-trade purists nervous. If Mexico tries to compel U.S. firms to build communities by raising taxes, the argument goes, the companies will simply go elsewhere.

U.S. and Mexican officials have agreed to work together on the border's most glaring problems of air, soil and water quality.

A binational, eight-year plan mandates sewage treatment, landfills, road improvements and dozens of studies in the region.

It is a monumental task for which Mexico has earmarked $460 million over the next three years. The Bush administration's commitment, $379 million over two years, was immediately criticized as insufficient by some who noted the U.S. economy is 25 times larger than Mexico's.

"It's insulting," said Jan Gilbreath, project coordinator for the U.S.-Mexican Policy Studies Program at the University of Texas. "This was almost a way of saying pollution is a Mexican problem."

A stone's throw from Victoria Rojas' shack, Ramon Sala y Andia supervised his moon-suited crew. Illegal toxic waste dumps, or "cemeteries" as he calls them, are turning up all over Ciudad Juarez, as Mexican inspectors become more vigorous.

"With the free-trade agreement, there will be a lot more work," he said. "But if this isn't controlled, where will we end up? Today it's this mess. Tomorrow it's four or five times this."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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