Mexican Lead Pollution, North American Free Trade Agreement Quagmire

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A groundwater plume carrying high concentrations of lead in the Mexican border town of Tijuana has contaminated the drinking water of an entire residential community called Colonia Chilpancingo. The plume, as it continues its subterranean movements, will undoubtedly threaten more Mexican citizens unlucky enough to find themselves living above its path. The owner of the battery reclamation/lead smelting site which produced the contamination has pleaded guilty to two of 26 felony counts, has been fined tens of thousands of dollars, and has had his operation closed down. Despite all of this, the lead waste that is estimated to be capable of filling two football fields waist-high, remains at the site and continues leaching into the groundwater system.

Strangely enough, the owner is free from legal actions that would obligate him to take responsibility for the environmental damage he has caused. This situation has developed because the owner of the site is an American who lives across the U.S. border, 20 miles away in an upscale San Diego neighborhood. Quite simply, the Mexican government does not have the power to subject him to the process of law.

In 1972, Jose Kahn, a Chilean who obtained U.S. citizenship in 1971, opened a lead smelting operation called Metales & Derivados in Tijuana, Mexico. Mr. Kahn processed old U.S. car and boat batteries, sending the slag, or lead-bearing waste, to Europe for further processing. Environmental laws of the 1980s made it economically unfeasible to continue shipping the slag to Europe, so Mr. Kahn began dumping the waste on his own Tijuana property. In 1987 and again in 1989, the Mexican government ordered Mr. Kahn to begin cleaning up the Metales & Derivados site. He never complied. In 1994, environmental officials shut his operation down. Unfortunately, no one, including the government of Mexico, had the money necessary to begin such a massive cleanup effort, so the waste was left in place. In 1995, after the Mexican government convicted Mr. Kahn of environmental crimes, he solved his problems creatively by moving to San Diego to become a fugitive, where he remains untouchable by Mexican authorities.

Today, the case of Mr. Kahn’s lead-contaminated property is in the hands of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the accord that eliminated import tariffs on goods traded among Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. In 1998, citizens of Tijuana and San Diego brought the case before the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, NAFTA’s environmental watchdog group. The commission issued its report on Metales & Derivados, but the report still has not been made public, and may never be released. The lead waste at the site remains to this day, threatening nearby communities where significant numbers of children live.

Both Mexican and American citizens are waiting to see if the freedom created by NAFTA will be textured with enough oversight and legal authority to safeguard the Mexican people from the onslaught of environmentally vagrant businesses like Metales & Derivados. Washington politicians promised this protection would go hand-in-hand with passage of the free trade agreement – citizens of both countries are waiting to see if Washington delivers on these promises.

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