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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Border Clean-Up: Still Crying Foul

Air Date: Week of

The hopes for environmental improvements along the U-S-/Mexico border cities in the two years since the NAFTA agreement was signed still seem out of reach. Barbara Ferry reports from the border city of Juarez, Mexico on the problems in cleaning-up its putrid sewage canals.


CURWOOD: The North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified by the United States, Canada, and Mexico just about 2 years ago, amid competing claims about its environmental impact. Many hoped that debate would lead to help for the environmental mess along the US/Mexican border. But as Barbara Ferry reports from Juarez, Mexico's largest border city, residents there are still waiting to see signs of improvement.

(Traffic sounds, horns blaring)

FERRY: It's Saturday afternoon and traffic is bumper to bumper on the Zaragosa Bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. Zaragosa is the easternmost neighborhood of Juarez. There are still horse stables here, reminders that this was once a pastoral setting. But those days are gone.

(Honking horns.)

FERRY: Today more than a million and a half people live in Juarez. Most new residents have come from rural areas of Mexico. Hoping to find work in the hundreds of light manufacturing plants called Maquilladoras, that have sprung up along the border. Juarez is a booming city, but it still has no way of treating the 80 million gallons of sewage its residents produce each day. The raw sewage flows through the city in open canals. Juarenses call it Los Aguas Negras: The Black Waters.

(Flowing water)

FERRY: Just a few feet from the edge of one of these canals, about 50 people are building homes of cardboard and wooden pallets. Among them is Adriana Rodriguez. Her family came to Juarez 3 months ago, after her husband lost his job in a lead mine in central Mexico.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Down there, there aren't any Maquilladoras. There isn't any work. There isn't anything. So we had to come here to the border to find jobs.

FERRY: Adriana's husband now earns about $20 a week in a factory making circuit breakers. The money allows her to feed her family. But since moving to Juarez, Adriana says she's worried about living in the crowded, dirty city. Her 4-year-old son recently fell into a sewage canal.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: He was trying to cross the bridge when he lost his balance and fell into the water. He came out all covered with greenish mud. And that's why we want to leave this place, because our son fell in. We don't want it to happen again, or that we get sick from living here.

FERRY: This mother's concerns about her family's health are well-founded, according to Jim Vanderslice, who heads the School of Public Health at the University of Texas.

VANDERSLICE: The main types of problems have to do with fecal oral diseases, all those diseases that you get by somehow ingesting pathogens that come out of the feces of other people. And this is, you know, vibrio, cholera, you know is the organism that causes cholera. All other bacterial organisms cancel factor, viral organisms that cause hepatitis-A virus. All those are fecally, fecal oral transmission. So if you look at what the root of the problem is, the root of the problem is proper excrete disposal.

(Running water)

FERRY: As the sewage canals wend their way south, they traverse wealthy neighborhoods as well as poor ones. Mission de Los Lagos is Juarez's newest country club. Mansions ring its golf course, and inside the restaurant daughters of the elite pose in evening gowns for photographers from the local paper. But even here there are problems with sewage. A canal used by farmers to irrigate their fields runs nearby and causes a stench. Chef Pierno Bries says it's a problem.

BRIES: That was one of my first comments when the owners asked me to come up from Chihuahua, from the country club in Chihuahua, and they asked me to come up here and take over the kitchen here. One of the first questions I asked of the owner of the club was what's on tap about this odor that permeates the front part of the club, really?

FERRY: Everyone agrees Juarez needs sewage treatment. But the plants bear a big price tag. Forty million dollars. NAFTA's environmental site agreements are supposed to address these problems. Under the treaty, the US and Mexico set up the North American Development, or NAD Bank, to provide loans to border cities. Roger Frauenfelder is general manager of the border environmental cooperation commission, which reviews projects and recommends them for financing.

FRAUENFELDER: What needs to be recognized is the moneys that are being set aside for financing border infrastructure through the backing NAD Bank, is not a giveaway type program. It's not foreign aid. On the contrary, it is a new paradigm and by all measures that I can take is one that we need to pursue, because there's a lot of work to do here.

FERRY: But 2 recent developments are holding up border cleanup plans. In Washington, DC, Congress is threatening to slash NAD Bank funds. Meanwhile, in Mexico, the crash of the peso has cut buying power in half. So, even if low-interest loans were available, Juarez mayor Ramon Galindo says there's one simple reason he can't use them.

GALINDO: We don't need loans, because we can't pay them back.

FERRY: To help pay for the plants, Galindo says he would have to raise water rates by 100%. And given the state of the economy, he says that's not feasible.

GALINDO: People can't, in Juarez, pay for this huge increase on the rates of the water, because of the treatment plants. So when you ask me, when are you going to work on this project, I don't know. I don't know because I'm not sure I'm willing to provoke this increase on the expenses of people, because people won't pay. They eat, or pay the treatment plants, so they'd rather eat.

(Man's voice: "While I've got the floor maybe I should comment. As the current...")

FERRY: Back across the bridge in El Paso, environmentalists and government officials from both sides of the border are meeting to find solutions to problems they share. Wes Leonard, who directs the Center for Environmental Research Management at the University of Texas, says his hopes that NAFTA would bring changes to the border have dimmed. He says lack of progress on sewage treatment in Juarez is only one example.

LEONARD: If something like this were happening in any other part of the country, it would be a national outrage. We would have Senate hearings in Washington. Action would be taken. But since it's the border, since it's Mexico, it's accepted. And something's going to have to change.

FERRY: Juarez and El Paso officials say if their respective governments abandon them they'll seek funding for the treatment plants from other sources, including private foundations and the Maquilladora industry. Until the money is found, border residents here will have to wait for the environmental promises of NAFTA to be realized. For Living on Earth, I'm Barbara Ferry in El Paso.



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