With corporate globalization, trade increased along the U.S.-Mexico border and so did pollution. However, trade agreements like NAFTA fail to hold polluting corporations responsible or to provide resources for environmental protection.
Of the 66 documented toxic waste sites in Mexican border states, the most infamous is Tijuana's Metales y Derivados, a U.S.-owned maquiladora factory that recycled batteries imported from the U.S. The owner, José Kahn, fled across the border when the maquiladora was shut down in 1994 after community reports of health problems and repeated violations of environmental law documented by the Mexican government. Mr. Kahn left behind 23,000 tons of mixed contaminated waste, including 7,000 tons of lead slag, exposed to the elements and threatening workers and families living in the adjacent Tijuana neighborhood of Colonia Chilpancingo.
EHC and the community conducted a campaign for over a decade to compel a cleanup. In 1998, EHC and the community filed a petition with NAFTA's environmental agency, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
The commission's report, released in 2002, concluded that the site represented a "grave risk to human health." Yet the commission has no authority or resources to clean up toxic sites. After over a decade of organizing and advocacy, EHC and the community finally celebrated the signing of a landmark cleanup agreement in 2004 with the Mexican government and the formation of a bi-national, community/government working group. The cleanup was completed in 2008, ahead of schedule, and included independent community monitoring. (Download the full cleanup chronology.)
Metales y Derivados is the poster child for the failure of NAFTA to live up to its negotiators' promise to protect public health and the environment. However, Metales y Derivados symbolizes environmental justice achieved. The case established for the first time a structure for cross-border and community/government collaboration on toxic site cleanups.