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Border Industry Provides Jobs, Faces Criticism on Environmental Issues

May 14, 1989

MEXICALI, Mexico (AP) _ Spread out over a tarp, a sea of barrels suddenly appeared in the desert outside this city, burning the eyes and throats of anyone who approached.

About 150 in all, the barrels were labeled as containing toxic substances. But when a story appeared in a local newspaper, they disappeared as suddenly as they’d appeared.

Mexican environmental officials say the barrels of toxic waste were returned to the United States, but decline to identify which company dumped them or provide further details.

In Mexico, the incident called attention to the problem of border pollution, much of it related to maquiladoras, factories where Mexican workers assemble mostly U.S.-made parts into finished products sold in the United States.

In the tradeoff, U.S. manufacturers cut costs and Mexicans get jobs. But critics charge that the maquiladora industry - in which 1,500 plants employ more than 330,000 Mexicans - is responsible for a lot of pollution.

The Mexicali daily newspaper Novedades last January reported the discovery of the barrels outside Mexicali, just south of the California border about 100 miles east of Tijuana. When a Novedades reporter returned to the same site less than a month later, the barrels were gone.

There was no public announcement about what poisons were in the barrels, who took them away or where they went.

Those barrels became a focus of fears that the industry is not a good neighbor, notwithstanding the employment it provides.

Sergio Quiroz, congressman from the People’s Socialist Party in Baja California, accuses maquiladoras of environmental derelictions, which he calls ″serious problems that can’t continue.″

Under Mexican law, maquiladoras must dispose of all toxic wastes in the country of origin, but even Mexico’s environmental agency, Sedue, admits it has a hard time enforcing the law.

″We still don’t have all the monitoring equipment we need. We don’t have enough personnel and laboratory equipment,″ said Ricardo Parra Montes, the top federal environmental official in Baja California state.

″We are aware the infrastructure of waste management is not duplicated across the border,″ said Larry Aker, assistant deputy director of San Diego County’s Hazardous Materials Management Division.

Waste disposal problems are not limited to maquiladoras. Aker said a ″regular flow″ of waste oil, some laced with toxins, is taken to Mexico for use as fuel in industrial boilers.

Parra Montes admits the Mexican government does not have as much money as the U.S. government to devote to environmental policing, but enforces the law and fines violators.

″It’s hard to oversee the industries,″ says Antonio Mesa, director of the Mexicali branch of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, which studies border issues. ″There are people who take advantage of the situation.″

Francisco Javier Rivas, associate chairman of the National Association of Industrial Parks, said he fears that illegal dumping ″could ruin our positive image.″

″I hope authorities find who caused that problem,″ said Rivas, who also manages the Mexicali Industrial Park, home to 24 maquiladora companies employing 7,500 people.

He said the majority of maquiladora industries want to deal responsibly with wastes. ″Our own system could be damaged if we don’t police ourselves,″ he said.

Aker said that in his discussions with maquiladoras, he found a willingness to cooperate with environmental regulations. ″The mindset of industrial leaders in the United States has carried across to the other side.″

But he said Mexican regulations aren’t always clear. ″They are frustrated as to what the regulations are.″

One example of confusion about regulations involves zoning rules, Rivas said. ″A company can set up a plant within a residential zone and it become difficult to control their waste disposal,″ he said.

Rivas said this results from enforcement of regulations by various branches of government, which means lack of coordination.

Parra Montes said a prospective maquiladora wanting to locate in Mexico must provide employment and not pollute.

″It’s a selective policy,″ he said. For instance, he said Mexico does not accept recycling industries, metal smelting plants or plastics manufacturers in its maquiladora program.

The maquiladora industries pay workers about $10 a day, triple the mininum wage but a fraction of the labor rate across the nearby border. The assembly plants have become Mexico’s third-largest industry after petroleum and tourism.

″Here in Mexicali there is no unemployment, due mainly to the maquiladoras,′ ′ said Mayor Guillermo Aldrete Haas.

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