Of Borders, Fences, and Global Environmentalism

By Yang, Tseming | Chicago Journal of International Law, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Of Borders, Fences, and Global Environmentalism


Yang, Tseming, Chicago Journal of International Law


They say that political boundaries are fictitious and arbitrary lines. At the US-Mexico border, however, that line is not just an imaginary concept but also a tangible, physical structure. Metal fences run along the border from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas. In the vicinity of its Pacific Ocean endpoint, the San Diego-Tijuana area, the fence is fourteen feet high. Hundreds of names are scrawled on the Mexican side of the fence, memorializing those who have died in their attempts to enter the US under the Immigration and Naturalization Service's ("INS") Operation Gatekeeper.1 Before running more than a hundred yards into the Pacific Ocean, the fence divides a park that straddles the border. The park, dedicated by Pat Nixon in 1971, is named Parque de la Amistad-Friendship Park.2

* * *

When we think of international environmental problems, the problems that immediately come to mind are global climate change, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, and transboundary pollution. They are salient because they fit the common perception that international environmental problems are in countries far away and largely outside of the direct reach of the US government. Many international environmental problems, however, can also be found much closer to home, at the US-Mexico border.

In August of 1999, I joined about a hundred other people at a conference on environmental justice at the US-Mexico border.3 The conference included a bus tour of the US-Mexico border region in San Diego, California, and a follow-up discussion with government regulators, community activists, and others about border environmental problems and their special impact on the poor and communities of color. I attended as a member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council's International Subcommittee, a federal advisory committee to the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA").

Our bus tour began in the Barrio Logan community in southeast San Diego, a 90 percent Latino/African-American neighborhood. Barrio Logan suffers from a variety of urban environmental problems. Its mixed-use zoning allows the operation of industries such as chrome plating and chemical storage facilities in close proximity to, indeed sometimes just yards away from, residences and schools. Nearby Crosby Street Park is located on a brownfields site that still contains low levels of petroleum contamination. It was designed to allow residents access to the San Diego Bay, though fishing is now prohibited due to contamination. After visiting the reservation of the Pala Band of Mission Indians and a nearby farm labor camp, our buses headed to the international border.

Just across the border, in Tijuana, Baja California, we stopped at the Metales y Derivados battery recycling plant. The Metales site has become the poster child of the serious environmental pitfalls of liberalized US-Mexico trade and border industrialization.4 It is an abandoned maquiladora facility that formerly housed an open-air battery cracking and smelting operation.5 Ever since it began operations in 1987, however, it was repeatedly cited for serious regulatory violations.6 Not until 1993 did Mexican authorities formally commence judicial enforcement actions against it.7 In response, the US parent company, New Frontier Trading Corp., and its American owner, Jose Kahn, abandoned the plant.8 They left behind thousands of cubic meters of lead-contaminated wastes and heavy metal-laden soil.9

Recent studies have shown that the wastes contain lead, antimony, cadmium, and arsenic.10 Lead concentration in the subsoil has been measured at up to 178,400 mg/kg.11 A 1999 Mexican government report stated that "the premises of the former company are a major health risk and ... the wastes found there must be given suitable treatment."12 The report further recommended that "urgent measures ... be implemented immediately" and that the government "initiate restoration measures immediately. …

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