Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a coalition of environmentalists from more than 250 Native American communities, argues that the order requires the EPA to demand that Mexico move the hazardous waste facility to a location that does not impact members of the Tohono O’odham tribe, including those living in northern Sonora. By simply encouraging Mexican-O’odham discussions, Goldtooth contends, the EPA is “shoving the problem on the tribe.”
Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and a consultant for Tohono O’odham traditionalists, says, “They (EPA officials) need to quite clearly tell the Mexican government that the hazardous waste facility would have an unacceptable impact on U.S. citizens.”
But even within the 100-kilometer border zone, the EPA has limited influence over Mexico’s decisions on hazardous waste facilities, Jones says. “We are trying to the best of our ability to fulfill our trust responsibilities with the Tohono O’odham and act on their behalf in trying to deal with another sovereign entity, which is Mexico,” he says.
The facility proposed for the Quitovac area is one of a half-dozen hazardous waste dumps planned for northern Mexico. The U. S. and Mexico have long recognized the need for Mexico to develop more hazardous waste facilities as Mexico continues to industrialize. Mexico exports most of its hazardous waste to the United States, where a haphazard tracking system makes it extremely difficult to determine how much hazardous waste is entering and where it is coming from.
Additional facilities in Mexico would reduce illegal dumping and the distance that hazardous waste must be transported, EPA officials say. “From a safety standpoint, any time you can reduce the distance you transport hazardous waste, it makes sense,” says Emily Pimentel, an EPA Region 9 official in the waste and enforcement division.
Arizona regulators are taking a more aggressive stance against the proposed hazardous waste facility than the U.S. government. In an October letter to the EPA, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality director Steve Owens noted opposition to the dump by the Tohono O’odham and representatives of the Mexican municipality of Plutarco Elías Calles, which includes the Mexican border town of Sonoyta. Owens asked the EPA to require further technical analysis that would provide answers to “numerous valid questions that remain about this facility.” Without further study, he wrote, “ADEQ can not feel assured that the project will be constructed and managed in a manner that will fully protect the natural resources and public health in the Arizona-Mexico border region.”
The EPA has not responded to Owens’ request.
Officials in Sonoyta, Mexico, have refused to approve a land-use plan and issue construction permits for the dump. In fact, Sonoyta’s leaders have supported demonstrations organized by Tohono O’odham traditionalists and Sonoyta environmental groups, including one that shut down the international border for several hours during the Thanksgiving weekend.
It is not clear, however, whether a lack of permits has stopped construction from beginning. Early in January, a High Country News reporter and photographer attempted to drive to the proposed dump site, but a security guard in an unmarked truck ordered them to leave. It was clear that heavy equipment had been using the dirt road, and there was evidence the road had been graded and widened.
EPA officials consider it unlikely that construction would begin on the hazardous waste facility without approval from local Mexican authorities. “It’s our understanding there is no work and we would be pretty surprised if there was,” Pimentel says.
That doesn’t make Guadalupe Lopez Duarte, the principal of a small boarding school in Quitovac, feel any better. The school, which serves about 60 O’odham students, is located a mile west of Mexican Highway 2, the route to the proposed dump.
“The people that are bringing the chemicals don’t have to live with it,” he said. “But we do.”
The author lives in Tempe, Arizona.