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Mexico Environment Enforcer Makes Slow But Steady Progress


SANTIAGO ONATE LABORDE'S task is neither small nor easy.

In Mexico City alone there are 35,000 factories. At least 25 percent of the industrial output of the country is here. Yet there is only one toxic waste disposal site in the nation. And it is more than 800 miles to the north.

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Where does most of the industrial waste produced here go?

"It's dumped illegally into the sewers, landfills, or clandestine sites," Mr. Onate ruefully admits. "However, that's slowly but consistently changing."

Last June, Onate became the mano dura or "heavy hand" of the Mexican environmental scene. This avuncular, straight-talking lawyer was given the task of starting the office of attorney general for the environment. "My sole purpose is to apply the law and make sure industry takes us seriously," he explains.

Lax enforcement of Mexican health, safety, and environmental laws is a key concern of US and Canadian legislators who oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Onate says Mexican society is also demanding stricter enforcement now.

To accomplish this task, Onate has a staff of 1,600 with offices in every state. His inspector force has jumped from 304 to 504. This year's capital budget, not including salaries, will double to $40 million. The money will go toward computers, vehicles, and three new laboratories to analyze factory discharges.

From August, when his office took over factory inspections, through December 1992, about 1,500 inspections were completed. "That represents a 400 percent increase in the number of inspections over any other six-month period in history," he says. Failure to pass an inspection can result in fines and immediate closure of a factory or the contaminating machinery. Roughly $2 million in fines have been collected to date.

In the first several months, 6 out of 10 factories inspected were subject to a shut-down order. The order is not lifted until a bond is deposited and an anti-pollution plan drawn up with a time period for implementation. The government is also charging companies for garbage pickup according to volume and basing water rates on the quantity and quality of the water discharged.

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As of January, the closure rate had dropped to just under 4 of every 10 factories inspected.

"When you talk about rule of law, you need to take into account the degree of voluntary compliance. I don't want to be overly optimistic, but we're starting to see an attitude change," Onate says. He notes for example that initially, all he received were complaints and threats from factory managers. Now, a few plant owners are coming to his office before the boom is lowered, to see what preventative steps can be taken.

Environmentalists generally praise Onate's work. "He's a good lawyer. He understands the importance of citizen participation," says Homero Aridjis, president of the Group of 100 ecological organization. But Mr. Aridjis notes that Onate either lacks the clout or the desire to take on some of Mexico's worst polluters - government-owned industries.

"We haven't yet been as effective as we'd like with public enterprises," Onate admits. But his office is "on the verge of important agreements" with the state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, and the federal electricity commission, he says.

A trade agreement will create a bigger universe of factories to watch over, because investment is expected to bring more companies into Mexico, Onate says, but it may also make his job easier. "We can make sure the new factories coming in comply with all the technical requirements, and they'll force some of the older plants, which tend to pollute more, out of the market."

Mexican government officials claim 1 percent of the gross national product is being spent on environmental protection now. Given the scope of the challenge, does Onate have the resources to ensure compliance?

Onate responds: "Anybody who tells you he's got enough is lying or doesn't understand the problem. I'm doing the best I can with what I have and we're progressing at a steady pace."

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