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NAFTA Boom Is Threatening Border Ecology

The pace of change in Brownsville and Matamoros outstrips the capacity of governments to cope

WHAT will happen to the environment along the border of Mexico and the United States if the North America Free Trade Agreement is enacted?

A federal judge has ordered President Clinton to answer this question before submitting to Congress the treaty that would combine Mexico, the US, and Canada into a single $7 trillion economy.

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Mr. Clinton conceded in Montreal July 3 that he lacks the votes to pass NAFTA because Congress is worried about jobs and the environment. Negotiators from the three countries are at work on side agreements to address these concerns. Nowhere are the stakes higher than in the border city of Brownsville.

The importance to the city of trade with Mexico became apparent not long after a New England merchant founded Brownsville in the mid-1800s. Vessels would load Confederate cotton for export, then dock in Matamoros, just across the border, long enough to hoist the Mexican flag, enabling them to pass freely by the Union naval blockade.

Cotton remains an important crop in Cameron County, where Brownsville is the seat. But 44 percent of the families in the city of about 100,000 live in poverty, the highest proportion in the US, according to a recent study of the Greater Washington Research Center's Committee on Strategies to Reduce Chronic Poverty. These families earn less than $9,880, in contrast with the $35,225 national median.

No wonder this city, whose only skyscraper is its water tower, hopes to become a free-trade crossroads.

Ernie Hernandez, who owns and operates Ernie's convenience store and serves as a city commissioner, says: "Brownsville is 100 percent in favor of NAFTA." He adds in the same breath, "But we're also 100 percent in favor of the environment. People didn't even know what environmental concerns were 10 years ago." That was when the drastic devaluation of the peso drew US companies to Matamoros and other border cities to build low-wage assembly and manufacturing plants called maquiladoras.

Three years ago, Brownsville began to experience an unusually high number of babies being born with a rare birth defect called anencephaly. Last March, the parents in 16 of these cases filed suit against 88 American- and Mexican-owned industries in Matamoros. The families charged that toxic emissions polluted the air and water, causing the birth defects.

Prospects for the plaintiffs seem dim, given that what little water-monitoring data exist are relatively recent and sporadic. In December, an air-monitoring program for Brownsville was announced by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a study of Rio Grande contaminants was begun by order of the state Legislature. It will take a year to complete.

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The high number of anencephaly cases "is definitely from environmental causes," says Domingo Gonzales, who keeps an eye on Matamoros industries for the Texas Center for Policy Studies. But even he adds: "No one is blaming just the maquiladoras. The friendly neighborhood farmer is responsible for part of it." The Arroyo Colorado, a waterway extending northeast from Brownsville, has one of the nation's highest concentrations of the banned pesticide DDT and its breakdown products.

Mr. Gonzales says the current theories about the causes of the anencephaly cases are (1) volatile organic compounds emitted by the maquiladoras, (2) pesticides from farming, (3) a combination of the first two, and (4) trihalomethanes created in Brownsville's water supply by chlorinating water with excessive amounts of fecal coliform.

He cites a sample taken from the Rio Grande downstream from Brownsville, in which the coliform count was 50 percent higher than is safe for boating, and hundreds of times too great for drinking.

"Stop right here," Gonzales says, in the middle of taking a visitor on an ecotour of Matamoros. He steps out of the car into a foul breeze and peers into a sewage canal next to Cecilia Ocelli de Salinas, a new Matamoros neighborhood named for the Mexican president's wife. Dwelling in homes of constructed plywood and shipping palettes are families who have migrated northward to take maquiladora jobs of up to $1.25 an hour.

Gonzales is apologetic that the inky liquid in the canal isn't more offensive. The tropical storm a few days earlier, he explains, has washed away most of the muck.

He then makes his way to the town dump. It's a surreal scene. The hydraulic system on a garbage truck brays as it expels its load. Human beings, armed with metal hooks, rummage through the heap, hoping to scavenge something of value. Hogs root among the rubbish. The flesh rots on animal skulls piled near a boy munching on a watermelon in a suffocating fog of flies.

As usual, part of the dump is on fire, although Matamoros officials deny any burning goes on here. Since the dump lies southeast of town, the toxic fumes from burning plastic are carried downtown and on to Brownsville by the wind.

Every town has a dump, but this one, Gonzales says, shows how incapable Matamoros is of properly dealing with the tenfold growth

in population caused by the maquiladoras, and how further unprepared it is for the buildup associated with NAFTA. As bad as the dump is, much of the city's waste never gets here. Matamoros needs 90 trash trucks but has only 15.

It's a relief to tour the industrial park, with its mowed lawns and smooth pavement. Here, at least, are signs of progress: General Motors, which owns several of the maquiladoras, installed water-treatment plants after adjacent ditches were found in 1990 to contain methylene chloride at 215,000 times the acceptable concentration and xylene at 6,000 times.

"Most of the plants have responded" to bad publicity and are "trying very hard" to clean up their act, Gonzales says. Others never produced toxic waste.

Then there is the Quimica Fluor plant, which emits dangerous hydrofluoric acid. Its smokestack towers over adjacent neighborhoods that have united in opposition to Quimica Fluor's presence. Many residents of the neighborhood want the plant to close and relocate. Instead, the government has decreed the establishment of a 2,000-foot buffer zone around the smokestack that would force thousands of people from their homes.

"It's a very difficult fight because we are fighting against the government at the same time," says Emma Mendez Garcia, a leading neighborhood activist.

Back in Brownsville, Mr. Hernandez notes: "We breathe the same air and drink the same water" as residents of Matamoros.

The health consideration is reason enough to prompt alarm over further environmental depredations, but the Brownsville area is also home to endangered ecosystems and species.

East of the city, on the Rio Grande's banks, lie "32 of the jungliest acres in the United States," says Rose Farmer, manager of the Audubon Society's Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary.

Once, 40,000 acres of palm jungle stretched across the wide delta. But the river was confined to one channel to serve as an international boundary, its flow was diminished 90 percent by demand for water upstream, and the land was cleared for farming. A challenge grant from Exxon enabled Audubon in 1971 to buy the plot, the largest remaining Sabal palm grove in the US, and 140 adjacent cleared acres.

Leading the way past hundred-year-old palms, Mrs. Farmer passes a hummingbird's nest from which two needle-like beaks project. She pauses at the resaca, an oxbow lake carved by the Rio Grande. Snakes crisscross the water as a Least Grebe gobbles a fish and a Green-backed Heron scouts the shoreline. Hiding from daylight are the sanctuary's most important residents: the ocelot and jaguarundi, two endangered cat species.

Considering that smoke from the Matamoros dump reaches Sabal Palms, and that Farmer refills the resaca with Rio Grande water, she takes a great interest in what NAFTA would mean for the area's industrial development. "So many [proposals] here are NAFTA-driven: bridges, dams, development, maquiladoras, water fights," she says. "We've been in a NAFTA frenzy for two years."

Take, for example, the wealthy businessman who owns most of the Rio Grande's southern bank, stretching east from Matamoros. He wants to turn it into an industrial corridor and link it to the port of Brownsville. The requisite bridge would cut through the wildlife corridor that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying to piece together for 14 years along the river's northern bank.

Another proposal, albeit unlikely, calls for building a dam upstream from Brownsville to supply water for its growth. The city, it seems, has not been savvy about acquiring water rights. Farmer points out that carving a channel in the Rio Grande has caused it to scour a deep path that would enable salt water to intrude from the Gulf of Mexico if a new dam ever reduced what flow is left.

One of the most objectionable proposals from the environmentalists' point of view is an intercoastal canal that would link Tampico, Mexico, to the Texas border. The governor of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas proposed the idea as a way to capitalize on NAFTA. But the dredging would wipe out the seasonal habitat of birds and sea turtles in Mexico's Laguna Madre, just as it did when the intercoastal canal was built along the Texas coast.

"It's a wonderful idea but not practical," Hernandez says. "I just don't see it ever happening because of the wetlands. It would be a canal to nowhere."

The wetlands he refers to are not in Mexico but in Texas. There, the intercoastal canal goes only as far as the Brownsville ship channel. A dozen miles of nearly undeveloped beach and low-lying clay dunes separate the ship channel from the mouth of the Rio Grande.

At one time, some 12,500 acres there - including 8,000 acres of wetlands - were slated to be turned into an $8 billion resort called Playa del Rio. But the investors defaulted, and their bank collapsed. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation sold the assets to a Houston bank, which accepted a bid for the Playa del Rio property from Grupo ICA, Mexico's biggest developer. The FDIC concurred, but environmentalists, including Norman Richard, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, s ued to block the sale. The case is now in court.

Dr. Richard walks through a horde of mosquitoes onto a black tidal flat in the Playa del Rio land. "This ugly-looking stuff is really the basis of the shrimp and fish economy," he says. The algal mat he refers to fixes nitrogen, then decomposes into detritus that is food for spawning marine life. Other parts of the property are home to the endangered piping plover.

Richard thinks that development of the land is now out of the question. State officials oppose development, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission bought a 1,200-acre chunk that divided the property. Also, the Coastal Barriers Act excludes it from eligibility for federal storm and flood insurance.

Grupo ICA has not said why it wants the land, but Richard suspects that the company would cut a canal through as the missing link between the existing intercoastal canal in Texas and the proposed one for Mexico.

Meanwhile, Hernandez believes that Mexico is already cleaning up: "The Mexican government has gotten very strict." And the US would provide more money for the effort if NAFTA passes, he says.

"Is that why $80 million was vetoed in Congress ... for the colonias?" asks Carmen Rocco, a pediatrician at the Brownsville Community Health Center. She notes that the Brownsville school district does not have the $50,000 or more it needs to study the cancer rate among four- to 17-year-olds, something it wants to do in response to an upsurge in student health problems.

"I have no hope for more money if NAFTA passes," Dr. Rocco says. "Just the opposite."

Hernandez says NAFTA would only increase the flow of ongoing trade. As for the environmental implications of implementing the treaty, he says: "I want it to be done right."

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