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A Movement Blossoms: Cross-Border Activism Picks Up Speed

by Kent PatersonBorderlines
October 20th, 1998

In October 1998, after years of protest by an unprecedented bi-national coalition, the proposed Sierra Blanca nuclear waste dump was defeated. The proposed site for the commercial nuclear waste dump was just 16 miles from the Texas-Mexico border. Ultimately the three member Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission voted unanimously to reject the dump because the site was located on an earthquake fault. Organizers charged, meanwhile, that the site had been chosen out of political expediency in a low-income Mexican-American community near the border. They claimed a watershed victory for the environmental justice movement. Kent Patterson's article, written just before the dump was mothballed, outlines the growth of this precedent- setting cross-border environmental justice movement.--Ed.

On Sunday, October 11, about 150 people from Mexico and the United States joined hands on the Bridge of the Americas between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez to symbolize the international alliance against the waste dump. Before they were chased off by U.S. bridge security personnel, who also warned photographers not to take officers' pictures, the demonstrators chanted slogans at passing motorists and vowed to oppose any radioactive dumping in the Chihuahua Desert.

The same day, Greenpeace-Mexico and other organizations rallied outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. According to the Mexican daily La Jornada, actress Ana Colchero and members of the popular rock group Cafe Tacuba were among those in attendance.

On October 12, Dia de La Raza, hundreds of Juárez school children briefly blocked three international bridges on the Mexican side of the border. Earlier, Felix Perez, Juárez spokesman for the International Ecologist Alliance of the Rio Bravo, accused the backers of the Sierra Blanca project of pursuing an environmentally racist policy. Besides siting a dump close to the Mexican border, the facility is in a majority Hispanic, low-income community on the U.S. side.

"The demonstration against the dump has been a reaction to the racist attitude that's been manifested in different actions. One of the them is the establishment of this nuclear cemetery," charged Perez.

On the U.S. side, activists also kept busy. Members of the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund recently marched for three days in the August heat from El Paso's Lower Valley to Sierra Blanca. In September, they also delivered petitions with nearly 30,000 signatures to Gov. Bush and the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission. SBLDF organizer Ed Patrykus, the owner of a small lot in Sierra Blanca, said he enrolled in the movement "to protect that beautiful stretch of scenery and the wildlife and the Rio Grande." On the political front, Sierra Blanca became an issue in this year's Texas state gubernatorial race.

The latest protests cap a year of intensive organizing against the dump. In March, the Border Environmentalist Coalition emerged at a Juárez conference and united anti-Sierra Blanca dump activists with Native American opponents of the Ward Valley project in California and Mexican residents of Hermosillo, Sonora, who've been battling toxic lead waste disposal in their own community. The spring also witnessed a hunger strike by Juárez City Councilman Jose Luis Rodriguez and the first protest by the city's public school students.

In many ways, the Sierra Blanca movement represents the kind of cross-border linkages activists have envisioned ever since the NAFTA debate raised awareness regarding the deteriorating border environment. Thousands of citizens from both sides of the frontier have taken a stand on preserving their shared ecology while remaining divided by a politically imposed border.

Veteran El Paso community activist and SBLDF activist Andy Mares identified Sierra Blanca as the catalyst for future efforts to protect the vast Chihuahua Desert bioregion from further environmental degradation. Felix Perez considered the current groundswell of anti-nuclear sentiment to be the fruit of six years of hard work by NGOs and environmental groups. Today political parties, churches, public and university students, educators, and civic organizations have all enlisted to the cause.

"Teachers are participating and talking to their students and parents," commented Perez. "They're educating themselves on this subject in order to have sustainable development in the future. This obviously doesn't stop here. This is a permanent struggle." The Juárez organizer added that vigils are planned in different Mexican cities for October 21, the day prior to the expected Sierra Blanca license decision.

Turning to international tribunals, one group of Mexican legislators joined with Greenpeace and other environmental organizations last month in filing a notice with the Canada-based Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC)-- the body charged under the NAFTA side agreement with considering environmental disputes between the trade partners-- advising that if Sierra Blanca is licensed they will formally complain to the CEC.

In addition to charging the U.S. with failing to honor the 1983 La Paz accords between Mexico and the United States, intended to protect the border environment, activists working on the planned CEC submission will also try to focus the institutions attention on Texas compliance with the federal Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act and what they assess as a recurring failure by the U.S. federal government to enforce radiation regulations in the state.

The siting seems to clearly violate the terms of La Paz, which prohibits the construction of such dumps in a specified area on both sides of the border. Alberto Szekely, one of the 1983 agreement's principal authors, told the Mexico City News in a recent interview that the U.S. is obligated under the agreements to re-site the dump. "As chief negotiator for the peace accord," said Szekely, "I am worried about the attempts to deny that this document [the La Paz agreements] is a genuine legal obstacle to the construction and operation of the radioactive dump site. The peace accord was signed precisely to prevent a project of this nature to be placed within the border area that both parties agreed to respect."

If the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission gives a green light to Sierra Blanca on October 22, activists are prepared to explore various strategies to keep the dump from opening. They include pursuing the NAFTA complaint with the CEC, going to the United Nations and World Court, and lobbying Texas state legislators to deny funding for the waste dump.

Sierra Blanca Rises to Top of Mexican Political Debate

At the same time, the dump issue has risen to the forefront of Mexican political discourse. Sierra Blanca was transformed into an unusual unifier in a usually fractious political scene: All the country's five major political parties came out against the project. Mirroring the federal congress' anti-dump stance, the state congresses of Chihuahua and Coahuila passed resolutions against the dump, as did the city councils of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and Ciudad Acuña.

The common battle cry was the defense of Mexican sovereignty against what's widely viewed as a violation by Washington of La Paz. (Others in Mexico have pointed out that the siting also flies in the face of the UN's 1972 Conference on the Environment, which states that while countries can manage their toxic wastes according to their own laws as long as they shouldnt pollute or threaten to pollute the borders or territories of neighboring countries.)

Nonetheless, the Sierra Blanca debate also generated contradictory signals from the Zedillo Administration. Statements by the heads of the federal environment and energy departments that Sierra Blanca appeared to be safe as planned appeared to be at odds with earlier protests by the Secretariat of Foreign Relations. Pressed by opposition party legislators, Foreign Secretary Rosario Green stated in September that resorting to international law would probably do little good since Washington doesn't genuinely respect the jurisdiction of the World Court. However, Green added to the confusion days later when she added that Mexico still retains the option of going to the international tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands.

One possible explanation for the Zedillo Administrations hedging could rest with Mexico's own looming need to get rid of radioactive waste from the Laguna Verde nuclear plant and other facilities. Activists such as Felix Perez fear Chihuahua and other border areas are under consideration for such a facility. If erected, a site built within the restricted zone as defined by the La Paz Accord would certainly undercut any Mexican opposition to Sierra Blanca based on the binational agreement.





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