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Crosscurrents logo 2021

NAFTA's environmental impact on Tijuana 20 years later

Adrian Florido

When the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed 20 years ago, one of the big concerns was how the treaty would impact the environment.

After NAFTA was signed, eastern Tijuana experienced a building frenzy. One industrial park after another sprung up to accommodate the hundreds of American factories that came here in search of cheap labor.

Magdalena Cerda is an environmental activist, and she’s brought me to the edge of one of those sprawling complexes, to some barren, empty concrete basketball courts.

Cerda explains, “It’s called a stabilization cell. We have 42,000 tons of dangerous dirt and material in this cell.”

It turns out that buried deep beneath these courts, entombed in layers of plastic and concrete, are tons of toxic waste. In the mid-90s, an American battery recycling company called Metals and Derivatives shut down here. The owner abandoned the site soaked in lead and other toxins, just upstream from a working class neighborhood.

It took Cerda and a coalition of activists 10 years to get the Mexican government to clean the site and put the basketball courts on top to prevent future digging.

This site is exhibit A for environmentalists who oppose NAFTA. They say the free trade agreement has allowed cross-border industrialization to boom, while doing little to ensure that poor communities like this are protected.

NAFTA didn’t create any multinational environmental regulations. It didn’t create tri-national environmental police. No fines for polluters.

What it did create was a Commission on Environmental Cooperation, based in Canada. That’s where citizens can submit complaints about contamination in their country – but not until after it’s already happened.

The commission investigates those complaints.

Diane Takvorian directs the Environmental Health Coalition, the San Diego nonprofit that led the charge to clean up the battery recycling site in Tijuana.

“That was really it, and that’s really nothing in terms of establishing environmental standards. The citizen submission process can work to a certain degree, but we think that that site shouldn’t have existed to begin with, and that NAFTA could have done much more to encourage sites like that not to have been produced in the first place,” says Takvorian.

If based on a citizen’s complaint, the commission determines a hazard is going unaddressed, it publishes a report called a factual record.

That’s what happened at the factory in Tijuana. For the citizens who’d been complaining for years, the report was like a stamp of approval saying that yeah, their concerns were valid. The report helped them finally convince the Mexican government to take action and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help.

But that report took four years to complete.

Takvorian adds, “And that was one of the shorter ones. So there are others that have taken five, six years. Some have taken up to eight years and are still languishing.”

That is almost half the time that NAFTA’s been in existence. And when you’re talking about toxic waste near people’s homes, it’s enough time to do some pretty serious damage.

Evan Lloyd directs the Commission on Environmental Cooperation. This summer, the commission committed to speed things up. Its goal is now to fully respond to citizen complaints within two years.

Lloyd acknowledges the commission has a limited role, but says if not for the citizen complaints process, some pollution may never have been cleaned at all.

“NAFTA has in effect empowered or enabled Mexico to raise its environmental standards, its enforcement, to a level that is higher than it would have been without NAFTA,” states Lloyd.

But Takvorian – the environmental activist – thinks more should be done.

“This was a process that says you can complain about your government and the lack of environmental enforcement, but we’re really not going to do anything about it,” he says.

In the 18 years that NAFTA has been in effect, the commission has received a total of 79 complaints of environmental pollution across North America. It has issued factual records for only 15.

This story was originally produced by Fronteras: The Changing American Desk for their series NAFTA 20 YEARS LATER.