Mexican politicians have made the first move in a clash with the United States over sand. Yes, sand.
The recent construction boom in San Diego County has created a lucrative market in Mexican sand, which is used to make concrete for everything from sidewalks to office buildings. But now, many in Baja California worry that sand mining and exporting is leaving the picturesque peninsula short for its own building needs while wreaking havoc on riverbed ecosystems.
What was a verbal tug-of-war escalated into action recently when Mexican officials halted a rail shipment of sand near Tecate at the border and shut down part of a mining operation outside of Ensenada. Their goal? To crack down on sand exports from riverbeds in Baja to the United States.
"If they keep taking the sand to the United States like they have been doing, there is not going to be any more sand and Baja California is going to suffer the consequences," said a Tecate city councilman, Cosme Cazares Burgueno.
Sand mining has become the latest cause for Baja California environmentalists, who in recent years have fought against commercial shark fishing close to shore and a proposed strip of marinas and hotels along the coast that they say could damage feeding grounds for sea life. Concerns about sand mining have brought together a coalition of local, state and federal officials.
But San Diego County concrete manufacturers insist that the issue is political, not environmental. They say that there is plenty of sand to go around and that Mexican politicians just don't want their natural resources used for development in Southern California
"We're angry, we're frustrated, we're confused," said Dave Hummel, president of the Pacific Southwest division of British-based Hanson Aggregates, one of the world's largest aggregate and quarry operations. "From our view, Baja California has abundant resources."
Hanson Aggregates is trying to work with Mexican officials to resolve the conflict, Hummel said. Meanwhile, the demand for construction-grade sand is still high. So companies are turning to Riverside and San Bernardino counties for sand, adding the expense of lengthy truck rides and threatening to raise construction costs in San Diego County.
"There is demand for the product," so the companies will fill the demand, said Warren Coalson, a consultant to the sand and gravel industry. "It's just going to increase the price of the product."
Mining and producing sand costs, on average, $3 or $4 per ton in both Riverside County and Baja California. But trucking in the sand can cost $10 per ton from the Inland Empire, compared with $5 per ton by rail or barge from northern Mexico.
In San Diego, construction-grade sand sells at roughly $12 per ton, according to a study conducted by the Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy between June 2001 and August 2002. The study determined that the county consumes about 3.5 million tons of sand annually. One engineer estimated that amount would fill more than half of a football stadium.
San Diego firms began importing sand from Mexico in the mid-1990s because strict environmental regulations and permit requirements had raised the costs of mining sand in San Diego County. Rivers in the county are home to endangered species, including the southwestern arroyo toad, making several areas virtually off-limits, said Doug Molby, enforcement engineer with the county's Planning and Land Use Department.
The number of county sand mining operations has dropped from 10 to four in eight years, Molby said. "There is sand here, but it's just incredibly expensive to mine."
Sand from Mexico became an ideal alternative, because of its proximity, quality and abundance. U.S. firms estimate that between 10% and 20% of the sand used in San Diego County is from Mexico, but the Southwest Center's study reported the amount could be as high as 40%.
"Baja California provided a natural geographic fit to supply markets such as San Diego," Hummel said.
Most Mexican sand is mined from riverbeds in Baja California and then filtered and washed into high-quality sand for construction. The sand travels by barge from Ensenada or by train from Tecate over the border to Southern California, where it is blended with other materials to make concrete for schools, office buildings and sidewalks.
The increased mining south of the border is depleting the supply in Baja California, said Jorge Escobar Martinez, director of ecology for the Mexican state. He said that the national water commission is trying to limit the number of mining permits and that the state plans to study the environmental damage and the effects of mining. The government is also considering placing stricter limits on the weight of vehicles allowed in the streambeds and requiring sand miners to leave an undisturbed layer in streambeds to protect aquifers.
Escobar said the state's top concern is protecting the riverbeds from the "plundering" of sand, which can cause the deepening of rivers, bank erosion and the introduction of seawater into the streams. It can also affect the supply of groundwater for local communities.
The study, headed by a San Diego State University engineering professor, Victor Miguel Ponce, determined that excessive sand mining in the Ojos Negros Valley east of Ensenada could have moderate environmental effects on the groundwater and riparian habitat. The exportation of sand has also raised prices in Ensenada, the study said.
Mexican officials said concerns such as those prompted them to take action last month.
In February, Tecate officials stopped a train loaded with nearly 2,000 tons of sand from a nearby mining operation. The Mexican mining company transporting the sand to Superior Ready Mix in San Diego County could not prove the origin of the shipment, Escobar said.
Arnold Veldcamp, Superior Ready Mix corporate secretary, said the company's Mexico partner had obtained the proper permits and was in full compliance. Veldcamp said he doesn't understand why politicians have decided to clamp down on mining and exporting.
With regular train shipments from Mexico on hold, the company is now trucking in sand from Riverside County, which Veldcamp said does more damage to the environment by polluting the air. "You've got huge environmental impacts because of this massive trucking," Veldcamp said.
The same week that the train was halted, state officials targeted a mining operation in the Ojos Negros Valley, run by the Mexican company Petreos del Pacifico in partnership with Hanson Aggregates. The company had to stop using certain machinery used to screen sand after state officials said it lacked the proper permit.
"We've been scrutinized by state and federal authorities," said Roberto Curiel Amaya, chief financial officer for Petreos del Pacifico. "The government is looking for ways to stop the sand mining and the export of sand."
Petreos del Pacifico is now screening the sand with different machinery and is continuing to ship sand to the U.S. Curiel said Baja California politicians are basing their actions on misperceptions.
"There should be some basis to determine whether there are some environmental impacts or not and whether the local market is being supplied sufficiently," Curiel said. "We feel this is a very radical solution."