April 11, 2003

Border 2012: Environmental Protection and Public Health Agreement Signed by Mexican and US Authorities

By: Mariana Martinez

April 4 marked the signing of the Border 2012 Plan by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Deputy Administrator Linda Fisher and Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAP) Undersecretary Raúl Arriaga.

Border 2012 is a ten year plan for the two countries to help better environmental protection and improve public health along the México-US border.

“Border 2012 further advances two decades of significant federal, state and local achievements in protecting the environment and public health on both sides of the border,” said Fisher. “We are excited by the prospect that the priorities we have set, and the actions we will take, will be based on input from local communities and organizations. We are convinced that this approach will keep us focused and greatly enhance our chances of success”.

The México-US Border extends along 2000 miles and ten border states from both countries –CA, AZ, NM, TX, Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas- from the Mexican Gulf to the Pacific Ocean.

There are many ecosystems along the border region, ranging from Mediterranean to desert climates; it is the home of many species and about 11 million people living along this border. The average population growth is way over the national media for both countries. If the growth rate continues, 7.6 million people will be added to the current population by 2020.

Knowing well the high level of growth expectations and importance of the border region, the bi-national cooperation plan began with the signing of an Agreement between the United States of America and United Mexican States on Cooperation for the Protection and Improvement of the Environment in the Border Area signed by Presidents De la Madrid and Ronald Reagan in La Paz, Mexico in 1983.

The agreement has been implemented through multi-year, binational programs, such as the Border XXI Program and now, Border 2012.

“Many efforts have been made through out the years, but the growth and fast dynamics of this border have been overwhelming …The Border 2012 program plans to help resolve the situation by making joined efforts and involving more participants; local governments, community leaders, and of course, federal and state governments” said Arriaga.

So, how is this plan different from previous ones?

The key elements for this new program include governments from the ten Border States as partners –for the first time– in the design and implementation of the plan. It also includes new working teams including regional work groups to help define priorities in their own area, by public forums and work groups to help local-level planning and priority setting.

Jerry Clifford, Deputy Assistant Administrator in the EPA Office of International Affairs further explains the dynamic “We’ve established four regional work groups around the border. Rather than the two federal governments deciding what’s important for the entire border. Baja California and California will have their own regional work group and will be able to establish their own priorities for what’s most important environmentally at this border.”

This new approach will help to share decision-making responsibility and give more power to local associations and government officials as they work together and decide where the money goes.

The Baja California- California partnership.

Agency Secretary for California EPA Winston H. Hickox commented on the current conditions of the Baja California-California Border “We found that, to a degree, the problems associated with industrial waste water treatment in the Border Region are not as bad as we suspected they might be, that’s good … We continue to find the out wires and deal with them and continue to control the situation.

“This (referring to Border 2012) has opened up the dialog between me and Víctor Lichtinger (Director of SEMARNAP) in Mexico City about the construction of power plants in the border region and whether or not they should comply with the more stringent California standards. I’ve been promised that, for energy sold in California they will. And I’ve also been told that for energy produced to be sold in Mexico upon our common border they’ll use technologies that meet the federal USA requirements.”

This area is one of the most populated and visited areas along the border, with growing commercial and industrial importance; it is the home of many maquiladoras and other industries.

For several years, California has had a huge electric energy crisis, which will only get worse at the current population and industrial growth rate. So part of the debate among Mexican and US governments is the idea to produce electricity by putting power plants along the Baja California Border, and sell it to the to the US.

Although it means a lot of money for Baja California, it could also mean greater pollution and lower life quality for border residents by causing irreparable damage to ecosystems in the area.

Proposals by the Baja California government or American Companies to build energy producing infrastructure have been met by strong opposition from environmental groups and border population in general. Not just in the electricity issue, but also natural gas plants in resident areas and industrial waste managing plants have been banned because of opposition from organizations in the area.

The strong presence of Environmental groups in the SD-Tijuana area and their well-built partnership has developed long before local governments decided to design a plan. In fact, their unity, strategic and integrated efforts have been an example for local and state governments to follow.

One of the many organizations present at the event was Environmental Education Border Project. The Director Laura Durazo is also organizing the Environmental Border Forum, to be held in Tijuana in May. “I find that one of the goals we have in this Forum we’ll be having in May is getting together and sort out a way for us, as citizens and organizations to participate in the Border 2012 Plan”.

Do government and non profit organizations views on environmental health concur?

“Well -sighs Laura- there was a public forum held about two months ago. Many colliding views about sensitive issues where expressed and we hope they where taken into account in the design of this program. From today until May, we are giving ourselves time (the Non Profit Organizations) to study the document and come up with our own agenda about our role in this program”.

What does Border 2012 mean for Tijuana-San Diego?

EPA´s Deputy regional Administrator Laura Yoshii, also present at the event talked about specific local priorities for environment and public health in the area. She mentioned four immediate attention areas:

Laura Yoshii, Deputy Regional Administrator EPA.

1. Water treatment infrastructure: Local government plans include the building of water treatment plants for communities, in order to for them to get better quality in their household water. This will lower the risk of hepatitis and water worms among border residents, especially those living in poverty or far from cities.

2. Better Air Quality: Border 2012 needs to establish what is causing the most air pollution, and from there, set the priorities in air quality improvement. Mexican government plans include making tougher laws for vehicles and smog checks.

3.Getting Rid of Tire Piles: “We are doing an inventory where they might be accumulation of tires in border regions, because they are very combustible. We had places were they caught on fire and of course, that has horrible air quality implications” Said Yoshii. Authorities have to find a way for people to get rid of their old tires responsibly. By doing that, they’ll be reducing fire hazard and the related asthma and respiratory problems among the population. When it rains, tires become water containers, perfect for mosquito colonies and spreading of infectious diseases. Reducing tire piles will also diminish mosquito transmitted infections.

4. Faster Emergency response: The Plan includes working with fire departments and emergency personnel from both sides of the border to assure quick response to events such as natural disasters, industrial accidents or bioterrorism.

Border 2012 tries to inverse the power pyramid of those who where taking decisions and empower the communities by making them responsible of their own faith “ We are inviting citizen participation on both sides of the border. In some cases we will be able to give grants directly to those communities, in order for them to carry out environmental education, by using promotoras -community workers-because they can more effectibly do that” said Yoshii.

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