By Wayne Nastri and Howard Berman, Dutko Worldwide

The regional offices of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) are tasked with implementing this nation’s environmental policy through operations and enforcement. USEPA’s mission remains straight-forward; protect human health and the environment. It’s a tremendous challenge that faces many hurdles including insufficient resources to address all the tasks at hand. These challenges are particularly acute along the US-Mexico border. The Southwest’s desert arid climate compounds drinking water and wastewater issues. Raw sewage flowing into the United States is especially problematic during wet weather. Many older vehicles, often those that can’t meet California emission standards, are sold into Mexico, compounding air quality challenges along the border. Unscrupulous individuals illegally dispose of hazardous waste along the border and often times there are either insufficient or no programs in place to adequately deal with wastes that are accumulated in the border region. Compounding these issues are the thousands of people entering the US throughout the border region, leaving behind tons of solid waste, including bicycles, clothes, and water bottles.

While nearly 12 million people live along the border, pollution knows no boundaries. Unfortunately, border residents suffer disproportionately from many environmental health problems, including water-borne diseases and respiratory problems[1]. These issues are not new and the US-Mexico Border 2012 Program was announced in September, 2002 to focus on cleaning the air, providing safe drinking water, reducing the risk of exposure to hazardous waste, and ensuring emergency preparedness along the US-Mexico Border[2]. The 1983 Agreement on Cooperation for the Protection and Improvement of the Environment in the Border Area (La Paz Agreement), signed in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico, is the legal basis for the Border 2012 Program. The Program has six goals:

1. Reduce water contamination

2. Reduce air pollution

3. Reduce land contamination

4. Improve environmental health

5. Emergency preparedness and response

6. Environmental stewardship.

The Program is a true collaboration between the United States and Mexico and has many stakeholders involved in all facets. Stakeholders include local communities, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, representatives of the US and Mexico border states, tribal representatives, federal representatives, North American Development Bank, and the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission to name a few. 

These stakeholders work together through four regional workgroups (i.e., California-Baja California, Arizona-Sonora, New Mexico-Texas-Chihuahua and Texas-Coahuila-Nuevo Leon-Tamaulipas) with each region focusing on its key concerns. In addition, there are also border-wide workgroups focusing on environmental health, compliance and enforcement, and emergency preparedness and response[3].

Increasing access to safe drinking water and treatment of wastewater is one of the key priorities of the Program.  Every two years, USEPA coordinates requests for proposals for the design and construction of drinking water and wastewater treatment systems. Thus far EPA has approved $544 million dollars of Border Environmental Infrastructure Funds (BEIF) to be spent for a total construction cost of $1.6 billion. Importantly, every EPA grant dollar leverages approximately two dollars from other sources and of the 12 million border residents, more than 7 million will benefit from all the projects once completed (nearly 4 million are currently benefiting from completed projects).

The demand for BEIF far exceeds the funds available. Unfortunately, the manner in which projects were funded (i.e., complete project funding) lead some to believe that the funding wasn’t always utilized in the most efficient manner.  Typically, US funding focused on total project allocation, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars accumulating in the BEIF. Appropriators saw large unspent funds and surmised that since the funds weren’t being spent in a timely manner, the annual allocation could be reduced. This resulted in a revision to how funds are allocated.  Previously, the US approach to get projects funded was to finance them completely.  Now, projects can be funded for the design or construction phase, and not necessarily both at once. Additionally, key milestones and timeframes are more closely monitored and reported. Projects off schedule risk losing funding.  

There is an expectation that the BEIF allocation will increase in the future as spending rates improve and the unspent funds decrease.  As with any programmatic change, there are concerns that should be noted. Bifurcated funding may result in projects only being partially funded.  It is anticipated that as one project phase (i.e., design) is completed, funds will be available for the next phase (i.e., construction).  The fear, however, is that funding may not be available and the project could potentially cost more once funds are available. Depending on the delay in funding, it is possible that projects may need to be redesigned and thereby cost even more.  Only time will tell how this plays out.

Much has also been accomplished in reducing land pollution in recent years. Millions of tires have been removed and either recycled or used as fuel. A tire management program is being developed to address this insidious problem that is not only an environmental hazard but also a health hazard. Recycling programs are being developed to address electronic waste and e-waste collection events have been very successful and exceeded expectations. Old and unwanted pesticides have been collected that had the potential to adversely impact human health and the environment, and the Metales y Derivados, an abandoned lead recovery facility has been capped.

A significant investment has also been made in increasing emergency response capabilities and coordination in the border area. This has been accomplished through the development of Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) in border sister cities. Training and field exercises involving coordination and communication have already resulted in improved response readiness.

Politically, there has been much attention focused on the US-Mexico Border within the last year. The Border Governors meet annually, with the last meeting hosted by Governor Schwarzenegger in Hollywood, California last August. The benefits of building green economies throughout the border region was highlighted in that meeting. President Obama, in his recent trip to Mexico announced the Bilateral Framework on Clean Energy and Climate Change. As reported by the White House[4], “The Bilateral Framework will focus on: renewable energy, energy efficiency, adaptation, market mechanisms., forestry and land use, green jobs, low carbon energy technology development and capacity building. The framework will also build upon cooperation in the border region promoting efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to adapt to the local impacts of climate change in the region, as well as to strengthen the reliability and flow of cross border electricity grids and by facilitating the ability of neighboring border states to work together to strengthen energy trade”. It was further reported, “Through our collaboration in the Border 2012 program, working with our respective border states to provide opportunities for information exchange and joint work on renewable energy, such as wind and solar, that could include technical and economic project feasibility studies, project development, and capacity building in the border region. Other border work could include a bilateral border crossing planning group to develop strategies to reduce emissions from idling vehicles, among other initiatives that may be deemed appropriate”. 

Given the high level political support, it will be interesting to see what really emerges along the border in the coming months and years. The President has already backed away from revisiting the North American Free Trade Agreement and there will undoubtedly be protests from Mexico about the failure of the US to allow Mexican truckers free access to the entire US. Further, the President has called for Executive Agencies to reduce their budgets by $100M[5].  While this is not a significant amount in terms of the overall federal budget, it could be devastating to a program or group of people depending on where the cuts are made. The ongoing construction of the Border fence continues to be a source of tension and the current state of the economy, drug wars, and the public health threat associated with the H1N1 virus are also impacting Border plans and programs. 

With this backdrop, it would be easy to assume that not very much will be accomplished in the coming months and years. However, this assumption overlooks one very important aspect associated with work along the border. The people involved, whether they be representatives of federal agencies or local communities, are extremely hardworking and dedicated to improving conditions along the border. They will approach this in a fashion that leverages resources between the public and private sector. Accomplishments will be communicated as broadly and loudly as possible in order to maintain awareness and pressure to keep resources flowing. In addition, there will be an increased emphasis on enforcement, for compliance, deterrence, and supplemental environmental projects that provide additional benefits to impacted communities. We believe there will be continued attention and focus on border issues and continued success in addressing the most basic health and environmental issues in the border region, including, but not limited to improved access to safe drinking water and improvement in wastewater treatment.

This article was written by Wayne Nastri & Howard Berman of Dutko Worldwide.