December 24, 2008

Seven Years Later: Is the US-Mexico Border Prepared for Environmental Disaster?

By Kent Paterson
Frontera NorteSur Feature

The September 11 terrorist attacks sparked debate over the United States’ readiness to handle an attack involving weapons of mass destruction. In the days after the Twin Towers crumbled, concern was expressed about ocean ports and other border points of entry as possible avenues of assault.

Ample discussion was devoted to weapons manufactured for the explicit purposes of killing people, but little was said about the toxic and hazardous materials that regularly crisscross the US-Mexico border region.

In 2002, a new focus on border security inspired the governments of the United States and Mexico to sign a 22-point “smart border plan” that proposed facilitating the flow of goods and business people while deterring terrorism.

The Bush-Fox plan did not specifically address commercially-used chemicals and other hazardous substances in the border region, but it did advocate employing “smart technologies” like radio frequency identification devices in trucks that could also be employed to monitor hazardous shipments.

In December 2008, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officially summed up the Bush administration’s record in terms of what the agency defined as protecting the US against “dangerous people” and “dangerous goods,” among other missions. As the report’s authors made clear, preempting terrorism, together with stopping the entrance of undocumented persons into the US, characterized the thrust of DHS’ work.

The DHS report claimed historic advances in scanning 100 percent of cargo containers crossing the southern border with radiation monitors, and in implementing national standards to “protect high-risk chemical facilities from attack and theft of chemicals that could be used as weapons.”

Although the DHS noted the delivery of a mobile chemical lab system to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), its report largely glossed over the issue of routine, commercial hazardous materials shipments.

A 2007 report from the Good Neighbor Environmental Board (GNEB), a 25-member body that advises the White House and Congress on US-Mexico border issues, estimated that about 43.3 million pounds of hazardous waste enter the US from Mexico every year, mostly from the assembly-for-export plants known as maquiladoras.

While the GNEB characterized the cross-border hazardous waste flow as relatively small, the advisory panel added that significant quantities of hazardous materials including petroleum, petroleum products, natural gas, sulfuric acid, and other substances with the potential to kill or sicken people move through a region booming in population.

Obtaining a precise figure on the amount of hazardous goods entering the US via the southern border is difficult, however, since US Customs and Border Protection (CPB) does not maintain data of such imports, according to spokesperson Jenny Burke.

To prepare for possible disaster, all CBP agents receive training in the identification and handling of hazardous materials, Burke said in an e-mail to Frontera NorteSur.

“CBP considers public health and public safety a top priority,” Burke said. “Officers at ports of entry undergo annual HAZMAT refresher training to protect them and the public against all hazards related to importations into the United States.”

Essentially, the Mexican and US governments rely on private industry to safely package, transport and distribute hazardous materials. Companies in both nations are required to comply with an array of environmental, transportation and customs rules and regulations.

Some border experts contend not enough manpower is available to inspect hazardous materials before they enter the US.

The GNEB has raised concerns about the “sheer volume” of cross-border trade, concluding it was impossible to conduct “a thorough physical inspection of each truck, rail car and container entering the United States.”

The pace of the traffic is readily visible in El Paso, Texas, where more than 69,000 trucks entered the United States at the Bridge of the Americas and Ysleta-Zaragoza crossings during July 2008 alone, according to Carlos Carmona, emergency management coordinator for the El Paso Fire Department.

In a phone interview with Frontera NorteSur earlier this year, Chris Brown, an associate professor of geography at New Mexico State University and a GNEB member, argued more “boots in the booth” were needed on the border.

In testimony to Congress this year, CBP Commissioner Ralph Basham said Washington had plans to have more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents in the field by September 2009, or more than double the number of agents employed in 2001. As 2008 drew to a close, the Border Patrol counted more than 18,000 officers.

On the other hand, the number of CBP officers at Southwestern ports of entry grew slightly from 4,990 employees during Fiscal Year 2004 to 5,160 by late October of this year, according to CBP.

In its 2007 report, the GNEB noted that fewer than 15 of the approximately 50 US-Mexico border ports of entry allow trucks and trains to cross into this country with hazardous materials. In El Paso, hazardous materials are only allowed to legally pass through the Ysleta-Zaragoza port of entry, thus offering some safeguards to the bulk of pedestrians and drivers who travel through two other ports of entry and could be exposed to accidents.

Border Time Bombs?

In El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, environmental activists and officials have long worried about large-scale shipments of hydrofluoric acid, a corrosive material, that is shipped by train through the downtowns of the sister cities. Produced at the Belgian-owned Solvay plant on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, tons of hydrofluoric acid are exported to the US.

According to the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, hydrofluoric acid is an “especially dangerous” substance that can cause severe burns and scarring. The acid is used in glass etching and in the manufacture of fluorescent bulbs, computer screens and high octane gasoline, among other products.

Former and current environmental officials from Mexico and the US worry a train accident could result in the release of toxic gas.

“It represents an important risk, because the center of the city is very densely populated,” said Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez biologist and researcher Alma Leticia Figueroa in an interview with Frontera NorteSur last year. “There is a lot of commerce and people cross the tracks to go to work or school.”

After 9-11, the specter of terrorism added another potential element to the equation. “There is a worry on the American and Mexican sides of a terrorist attack on the bridge when the chemical products go by,” added Figueroa, who twice served as chief of Ciudad Juarez’s municipal ecology department.

Local press stories periodically report train derailments and accidents in both Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. Until now, no major train accident involving hydrofluoric acid has impacted El Paso-Ciudad Juarez, but stories archived in the Frontera NorteSur website report serious health and safety issues at the plant site when it was under different ownership several years ago.

Hazardous material shipments on trains are an issue for other border communities, including the twin communities of Sunland Park, New Mexico and Anapra, Mexico, on the northwestern edge of Ciudad Juarez. Scores of trains, virtually all of them transporting some kind of hazardous substance according to Sunland Park Fire Chief Robert Monsivaiz, noisily transport the goods of international trade in close proximity to schools, residences and businesses every day.

According to Monsivaiz, his department is not provided with advance notification of hazardous shipments on trains, but the fire chief said he is aware of “commodity studies” that give a general idea of what the trains carry.

After arriving to the Sunland Park department in the 1990s, Monsivaiz quickly got a wake up call. A derailed train dumped not only large quantities of pet food, Monsivais recalled, but also paints and thinners, which are regarded as hazardous materials, The incident inspired the public servant to make changes.

“It moved us to think about hazardous materials as a team and get training as a team,” said Monsivaiz, who serves as a co-leader of an emergency response task force under the US-Mexico Border 2012 program.

No major train accidents involving hazardous substances have been registered in Sunland Park since the doggie food derailment, Monsivais added. The border fire chief said hazardous materials accidents are a concern for his small community since a toxic spill, for example, could contaminate water supplies in three states and two nations.

Recognizing the threat posed by trains hauling hazardous substances in populated centers, some elected officials in the Paso del Norte, especially in Ciudad Juarez, have demanded that trains be rerouted away from the urban core.

An important step towards this goal was achieved last September when the federal Mexican government, Chihuahua state government, Ciudad Juarez municipal administration, El Paso city government and New Mexico state government officially unveiled a joint plan to re-route trains from downtown Ciudad Juarez to the up-and-coming border development of Santa Teresa, New Mexico, by 2012.

Carlos Carmona welcomed the announcement. “It’s a great thing. It would be a wonderful thing to move these trains,” he said, adding the El Paso Fire Department maintains an evacuation plan for the city’s downtown in the event of a train-borne toxic disaster.

But moving trains on paper is much easier than moving them on land.

Ensuring action requires negotiations among multiple public agencies and private entities in two countries, three states and several municipalities. In the Paso del Norte hub, three separate companies-Ferromex, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern-dominate the tracks, and an expensive new rail line and a new train terminal slated for Santa Teresa, could entail hundreds of millions of dollars.

Though the project is envisioned as a private-public partnership, it is unclear exactly how much dough cash-strapped Mexican governments and the deficit-plagued New Mexico state government will be willing or able to fork over for the train relocation.

It remains to be seen whether public safety or business as usual will be prevail in the Paso del Norte train relocation issue.

Heading off Disaster

US and Mexican officials are well aware of the potential for catastrophic accidents and/or massive environmental contamination along their common border. A sampling of border-area incidents since the 1990s include leaks at hydrofluoric acid plants in Matamoros and Ciudad Juarez, sulfuric acid spills from a train in Nogales and tire fires in Baja California.

Consequently, preventing and preparing for such events has slowly but steadily emerged as a focus of joint cross-border environmental initiatives since the signing of the 1983 La Paz environmental agreement between Mexico and the US. By 2008, 15 local sister city agreements, with the support of Washington and Mexico City, were signed to provide mutual assistance in the event of hazardous materials emergencies.

According to Carlos Rincon, director of the EPA office in El Paso, the voluntary agreements call for “table-top” exercises, or simulated disasters, in which emergency responders on both sides of the border contact each other by phone in a predetermined chain of notification, as well as actual emergency drills involving first responders from both sides of the border. One such exercise was conducted last September 24 in Columbus, New Mexico, and Palomas, Chihuahua.

As part of the Border 2012 initiative, the EPA is helping train and equip Mexican personnel. Last September, for instance, EPA Region 9 participated in training 30 Mexican emergency responders from Mexicali, Tijuana and San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora. The sessions utilized California’s advanced hazardous materials response curriculum, said Lance Richman, border coordinator for EPA region 9.

Additional US-sponsored trainings of Mexican responders are planned for 2009, according to both Richman and Valmichael Leos, a Region 6 EPA official also involved in Mexican training. Leos said his office will conduct trainings next year in the “high risk” cities of Ciudad Juarez and Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila.

After getting wind of the EPA‘S Mexican training needs, the US Department of Defense’s Northern Command (NORTHCOM) agreed to help pay for protective suits, air tanks, masks, radiation monitors and other gear.

According to NORTHCOM spokesman Mike Kucherek, his agency budgeted $1,770,000 to cover the border training for fiscal years 2007, 2008 and 2009. Under the Security and Prosperity Partnership agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, Northcom is viewed as an important player in emergency response scenarios.

Other examples exist of cross-border cooperation. For instance, federal US and Mexican officials conducted checkpoints in the Arizona-Sonora border region during 2006-07 to inspect hazardous waste shipments.

In September 2008, high-level US and Mexican environmental officials meeting in Ciudad Juarez signed an updated Joint Contingency Plan between the two nations aimed at improved bi-national collaboration in the event of a hazardous materials emergency. A year earlier, the annual US-Mexico Border Governor’s Conference resolved that states adopt a 5-year emergency response plan and develop memoranda of understanding for mutual help.

Overall, many US officials say significant progress is being made to prepare for potential catastrophe.

“To say everyone is prepared for a disaster is a fallacy,” said the EPA’S Valmichael Leos, a member the border emergency preparedness team. “We improve every day,” Leos said, “so when something happens we’re not trading phone numbers.”

Outstanding issues remain on the table. A September 2008 report by the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) criticized Border 2012 for lacking strategic planning, baseline data, accountability and oversight.

The EPA’s leadership took exception to many of the criticisms, accusing the auditors of ignoring notable accomplishments like the Sister City agreements. Nonetheless, the EPA agreed to develop a strategic plan and program guidelines for Border 2012 by December 2009.

The EPA’S participation in the Border 2012 project, which tackles environmental issues ranging from hazardous materials emergency response to air and water pollution, received $6.4 million in funding during Fiscal Year 2004 but actually saw its budget slashed to less than five million for Fiscal Year 2009, according to the GNEB and the OIP. The budget did not include resources contributed to Border 2012 by local, state and tribal participants. Currently, the important Border 2012 member states of California and New Mexico are confronted with huge budgetary shortfalls.

In contrast, the price tag for the DHS’ unfinished border fencing project is conservatively estimated at more than two billion dollars and could ultimately cost as much as $49 billion to build and maintain, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In the post 9-11 years, “security trumped not only trade but environmental concerns” said Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. Van Schoik’s staff is preparing a 2009 report on border issues for Washington policy-makers.

GNEB Chair Paul Ganster, who also serves as the director of for Institute for Regional Studies at San Diego State University, concurred with Van Schoik’s assessment.

“In general, funding for border environmental issues has declined over eight years,” Ganster said.

On the emergency response front, unequal levels of training, funding and technological access are key considerations, Ganster asserted. “In order to properly protect US citizens, we need to make sure that Mexican communities have excellent training and equipment to deal with emergencies like chemical spills,” he said.

At its extreme, some first responders are virtually without resources.

Firemen were among other municipal employees who reportedly did not receive paychecks for at least two months this fall in the border town of Palomas, Chihuahua.

Apart from funding, Ganster said responding to environmental emergencies in a border region presents other challenges like getting visas for response personnel or moving equipment across political borders.

“We felt there were some real issues with the movement of hazardous materials and the ability of first responders to move back and forth across the border in a fluid fashion,” the GNEB chair added.

For EPA’S Lance Richman, cash infusions are not necessarily silver bullets since communities, especially on the Mexican side, need to have existing management structures and capabilities to efficiently absorb new resources.

“It’s not something someone can really throw money at,” Richman said. “You have to think through your processes and coordinate with Mexican partners.”

Despite the economic crunch, many border experts agree that generous resources and attention are needed to assure that border communities are shielded from the hazards of chemicals and other potentially dangerous materials.

In its 2008 report, the GNEB recommended that the sister city model related to Border 2012 and other hazardous materials collaborations be formally expanded to include joint Mexican-US responses to natural disasters, which include wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes and floods in the vast border region.

Episodes like the Paso del Norte flooding of 2006, when a natural disaster triggered a toxic spill from a retention pond at the American Smelting and Refining Company’s old site in El Paso, vividly illustrate how man-made disasters cannot always be neatly separated from natural ones.

Partial funding for this story came from a grant provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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