When Pollution Crosses Borders Threat to US from Stacks at Mexican Power Plants Spurs Efforts to Set Clear Standards

Article excerpt

THE smokestacks at two power plants known as Carbon I and Carbon II are a long way from Washington, Ottawa, and Mexico City. But the smoke coming from these coal-fired plants is fueling new questions about the capacity of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to protect environmental quality.

There are currently six smokestacks towering over the prickly-pear cactus and mesquite trees that cover the arid flat lands near the power plants, which lie 20 miles southwest of the bridge that separates Piedras Negras, Coahuila, from Eagle Pass, Texas. Four stacks belong to Carbon I, a 1,200-megawatt plant built in the early 1980s. A half-mile south, construction cranes hover over two of the four stacks that will be built at Carbon II, a 1,400-megawatt facility to be completed by 1995.

These plants are subject to less stringent regulations than comparable US coal-fired plants. Environmentalists are concerned because winds in the region blow from the south and southeast, so smoke and pollutants from the plants will blow to the US while the electricity stays in Mexico.

"This is a perfect example of the relative weakness of the existing binational agreements for transboundary environmental problems," says Mary Kelly, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Center for Policy Studies, a nonprofit research and policy group that has been working on NAFTA issues for more than three years. "The current {pre-NAFTA} framework relies solely on informal cooperation between the environmental agencies of Mexico and the US. This framework is not adequate to deal with these kinds of complex situations involving major sources of pollution. NAFTA is an opportunity to strengthen the environmental framework for dealing with projects like Carbon II."

Expected to be the first power plant to be privatized in Mexico, Carbon II will soon be owned by a partnership of American and Mexican interests. Though it got little publicity until this year, it has gained the attention of some powerful people in Washington. The State Department, Commerce Department, and Department of Energy have all looked into the project. US Reps. Cardiss Collins (D) of Illinois, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Consumer Protection, and Competitiveness, and John Dingell (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, have written to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner asking questions about the project. EPA staff members have spent weeks working on it and talking to the Mexican government and plant owners. Plant could affect 16 US parks

National Park Service officials have done extensive air modeling to assess the new coal plant's impact. Early analyses indicate that the plant could adversely affect up to 16 national parks, including Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Big Bend National Park in Texas, the state's biggest tourist attraction. "This plant holds the greatest potential threat to degradation of air quality in the park," said Big Bend Superintendent Robert Arnberger. "Our air modeling shows that the plant could reduce visibility in the park by up to 60 percent."

According to an internal EPA document obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Carbon II will not have the same emission-control devices now required in the US. "The new units do not include any controls for sulfur dioxide and do not come close to meeting US new-source emission standards," it states. Both Carbon I and II burn lignite, a low-grade coal. When both units are fully operational, EPA officials expect that they will annually produce some 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, a gas that leads to the creation of acid rain.

EPA officials say the plant will release two to three times more sulfur dioxide than would be allowed at a comparable US plant. But they point out that the plants do not pose a health problem to US citizens. …