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Environmental Fears Voiced on Free-Trade Plan : Border: Critics say proposals to protect the border environment after a U.S.-Mexico free-trade accord are a farce.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Conservationists and other speakers voiced serious misgivings Monday about a joint U.S.-Mexico plan to clean up and preserve the border environment under a proposal for unfettered trade.

“An insult from conception to delivery,” is how Diane Takvorian, executive director of the Environmental Health Coalition, a San Diego-based advocacy group, characterized the document during a hearing in San Diego. The hearing was the latest in a series being held in border cities from California to Texas, and from the Mexican states of Baja California to Tamaulipas.

Similar heated complaints were voiced later in Tijuana, where the two nations’ environmental departments--the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Mexican Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology--held a second public forum in the afternoon.

“We don’t think this is a real plan,” said Naachiely Lopez Hurtado, secretary general in Tijuana of the Mexican Ecologist Party, a recently formed, conservation-minded political group.

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During the morning session at the County Administration Center in San Diego, placard-carrying protesters marched outside, chanting their displeasure.

“The Plan Stinks,” read one of many signs.

The document, known formally as the Integrated Environmental Plan for the Mexico-U.S. Border Area, is designed to address binational ecological concerns that have emerged as perhaps the most pronounced obstacle to discussions of a North American free trade agreement involving the United States, Mexico and Canada.

However, rather than allaying environmental concerns, the draft plan has drawn harsh criticism from detractors, who say it is no more than a catalogue of problems, containing few concrete suggestions and no funding for curtailing pollution.

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Among the highest-profile concerns: flows of raw sewage and industrial wastes from Tijuana into San Diego; serious air pollution in the sister cities of El Paso, Tex., and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and agricultural, residential and commercial tainting of the Rio Grande, a prime source of water for drinking and irrigation.

The public hearings were designed to elicit the opinions of border-area residents, noted Sylvia Correa, the EPA’s manager of Latin American programs, who has participated in all the sessions. The forums began Sept. 16 in Texas and are slated to continue later this week in the California border city of Calexico, its Mexican counterpart, Mexicali, and, later, in Nogales, Ariz., and the neighboring Mexican city of Nogales, Sonora.

“We knew we’d get creamed,” Correa said. “But we wanted to hear what the people had to say.”

Coordinating the opposition has been a coalition of labor, environmental and human rights groups, which have called for a suspension of free-trade talks until ecological and worker-protection issues are addressed more fully. U.S. labor unions fear that free trade will hasten the departure of jobs south of the border, where wages for comparable work are often one-eighth or less those in the United States.

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The plan “has so many gaps and so many loopholes, it has to be taken back to the drawing board,” said Susan Mika, a Texas-based Roman Catholic nun who is president of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, an umbrella group attempting to pressure transnational corporations to adopt “socially responsible” environmental and worker-safety practices.

A particular target was the so-called maquiladora industry--mostly subsidiaries of U.S. firms that have set up shop in Mexico during the past 25 years, drawn in part by cheap labor and relaxed environmental and worker-safety controls. Critics charge that the foreign plants, clustered in Tijuana and other Mexican border cities and mostly exporting products to the United States, illegally deposit vast quantities of untreated toxic wastes into border-area waterways, sewage systems and dumps, and that workers, predominantly young women, are routinely exposed to hazardous materials.

During Monday’s hearings, Craig Merrilees, who represents a coalition of groups seeking a suspension of the free-trade talks, presented officials with a glass of tainted water that he said was drawn from a fetid Tijuana arroyo, sullied by waste water from maquiladora plants.

“This is what the people in Mexico are living with every day, and we think it’s only fitting that you have a little sample,” Merrilees told the panel as he deposited the glass on the dais in front of Steve Anderson, the EPA hearing officer.

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Executives of the maquiladora industry vehemently dispute the negative characterization, contending that most hazardous substances are handled and disposed of according to Mexican and U.S. law.

“That is not to say that there aren’t maquiladoras that do not comply; but they are the exception and not the rule,” the Western Maquiladora Trade Assn., a Chula Vista-based industry group, stated in testimony. The association voiced fears that the foreign plants were being made a scapegoat for border environmental problems.

Experts expect such transnational industry to increase substantially in the border zone should negotiators sign a free-trade accord.

The final border plan is expected to be ready by late this year or early 1992, said Correa of the EPA. It will attempt to address gaps--including the lack of funding sources--identified through the hearing process, she said.

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The lack of financial commitment proved a major concern for border-area governments, which say their communities lack the resources to keep the area environmentally sound.

“Without the necessary funding, no guarantee exists that the environmental and public health standards of either country will be achieved in the border region,” James M. Strock, California’s secretary for environmental protection, testifies.

Judith L. Bauer, representing the city of San Diego, the most populous border city, expressed similar reservations.

“This is not something that can be thrust upon local government and state government because it is a nice idea,” Bauer said.

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