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US-Mexican Border Cleanup Stalls in Bureaucratic Halls

ELEVEN months after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) became law, two agencies that are supposed to address pollution problems along the US-Mexico border have yet to begin operating.

Created by the side agreements to NAFTA, the North American Development Bank (NADBank) and the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC), do not have offices or staff. The lack of progress is frustrating. ``We thought that by July 1, we would be well down the road and certainly be operating,'' says Pete Emerson, an economist with the Environmental Defense Fund. ``Now, it will be after the next calendar year.''

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Sources close to the BECC say six months were wasted when the United States State Department and the Mexican counterpart could not agree on the nationality of the BECC's general manager. A few weeks ago, the two sides agreed to a US manager and a Mexican deputy. The NADBank will be headed by a Mexican with an American as deputy. The appointment of the 10-member BECC board in September also took longer than expected.

The BECC, which will be based in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, and the NADBank, to be based in San Antonio, will work together on border-related pollution problems. The BECC will solicit and analyze proposals for infrastructure improvements along the border. The NADBank will then provide capital and loan guarantees to the projects.

NADBank has already received $50 million in start-up capital from the US. Eventually, the US and Mexico will provide some $3 billion for distribution throughout the border region.

When the BECC begins accepting applications for funding sometime next year, its agenda will be dominated by projects dealing with water pollution, waste-water treatment, and solid-waste disposal. Much of the focus will be on the Rio Grande, one of the world's most polluted rivers.

Some projects are already under way. The Mexican government and private industry are building a waste-water treatment plant in Ciudad Juarez to reduce the amount of raw sewage being dumped into the Rio Grande. Further downstream, Mexico and the International Boundary & Water Commission are cooperating on a $50-million waste-water treatment plant in Nuevo Laredo that will be completed early next year.

Farther west, the IBWC and the US government have begun work on a $239 million waste-water facility on the US side of the border adjacent to the city of Tijuana. The project will benefit US residents along the California-Mexico border, who have had to cope with the problems created by Tijuana's lack of adequate waste-water treatment facilities.

WHILE much of the BECC's focus will be on water, environmental groups remain concerned about air quality, particularly the problems associated with two coal-fired power plants along the Texas-Mexico border. Known as Carbon 1 and Carbon 2, the facilities emit up to seven times as much sulfur dioxide, a source of acid rain, as would be allowed in similar plants in the US. The US Environmental Protection Agency has been working on the problem for 18 months, but no solutions are in sight.

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BECC chairman Jorge Bustamante points out that international negotiations always take time and the process has been slowed by the assassinations and elections in Mexico. Mexico's new president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, will take office on Dec. 1. After that, Mr. Bustamante says, things should begin to work more smoothly in the Mexican bureaucracy.

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