A federal advisory panel urged the Bush administration Thursday to hear from residents on the U.S.-Mexico border before acting on a proposal to overhaul a bank set up by the two nations to clean up pollution along their shared boundary.
The Good Neighbor Environmental Board, which advises the White House and Congress on environmental issues at the border, asked to be included in deliberations over whether to reform the North American Development Bank and a sister agency.
"Public participation in border environmental and development projects is of great importance for the quality of life of the 12 million residents in these communities," the panel's head, Judith Espinosa, said in a letter faxed to the White House after two days of meetings in San Diego.
The advisory board consists of representatives from civic and business groups and government agencies concerned with border issues.
The debate over the future of the 6-year-old bank and its affiliated Border Environment Cooperation Commission is becoming one of the hottest environmental issues on the 2,000-mile border, where rapid growth, poverty and decades of neglect have created monumental pollution problems. Stark examples exist along California's border, where raw sewage spills into San Diego from Tijuana and the waste-laden New River runs north into Imperial County from Mexicali.
The bank, an offshoot of the North American Free Trade Agreement, was created by the two countries to help build treatment plants for water and sewage and to manage trash. But in six years, it has lent $11 million of $304 million contributed by both governments, in part because low-income border communities can't afford the interest, which is set at market rates.
Mexican officials are pushing for bank reform to make use of the idle funds by steering them into nonenvironmental projects that could boost economic development south of the border--such as highways, energy and housing--in ways that have a better chance of generating revenue. Mexico hopes for agreement in time for a planned Sept. 5 meeting between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox.
But environmentalists fear that the border needs will be abandoned at a time when sewage spills and other chronic ecological problems have gotten official attention, but little lending from the bank. Nearly three dozen treatment plants and other projects have been built or are underway using separate U.S. environmental grants and other funding.
An emerging consensus among the three agencies that oversee the bank and border commission on behalf of the U.S. government would retain both entities and keep their focus on the border's environment, while seeking to fix the sputtering loan program, a U.S. official said. But more debate was likely within the U.S. government.
Of concern to activists is whether to give the bank planning duties now carried out by the border commission, which helps communities draft cleanup projects and hosts public hearings.
Members of the advisory panel expressed concern that sudden changes to the twin institutions would leave border residents without a voice in which projects are built.
"Border communities are going to be adversely affected unless someone takes a stand," said board member Irasema Coronado, a political scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso. "This is a democracy."