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The power of pollutant information
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Community activist Laura Durazo describes the importance of pollutant release and transfer registers to environmental and human health.

By Laura Durazo

As a resident of the border mining town of Cananea in Sonora, Mexico, back in 1982, I remember my husband, a pediatrician, attempting to document respiratory disease rates and wondering to what extent they might be linked to the smoke spewing from the local smelter. Only 60 kilometers away, across the border in Arizona, an environmental group was presenting claims against a smelter in their community that its emissions exceeded the maximum levels allowed under US law. With access to data supportive of this claim, citizens groups eventually succeeded in shutting down the smelter in the interest of their community's health. We, however, had no access to such information about our local smelter's emissions, and without it we could only wonder and worry. Until that time, it had not occurred to me that, regardless of federal or state programs, residents are on the front lines-facing the reality of toxic hazards in our communities, neighborhoods and backyards—and we must equip ourselves to identify these hazards and participate intelligently in their elimination.

In 1990, I came to live in the border city of Tijuana and established our organization, Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, with the objective of addressing issues that had to do with industrial pollution and environmental and human health. We soon met community members there who were preoccupied with preserving severely endangered species in the last functional estuarine reserve in southern California, at Imperial Beach into which the Tijuana River flows. Here again, people on both sides of the border needed information on the wastewater discharges coming from Tijuana, which affected their communities. A study on learning difficulties among children in the community found high levels of lead in those living near a battery recycling plant. An abandoned battery recycling plant caught on fire and burned for weeks, sending a plume of toxic fumes and ash for miles around. Firefighters might have known how to extinguish the blaze, had they had information on the substances fueling it.

Time after time, information was needed by residents, health professionals, firefighters, and safety and local governmental officials because of the impacts on ecosystems from human populations and human activities in this and other industrial cities across the country, and across borders as well.

Mexican border organizations, supported by our US counterparts, who by that time enjoyed the benefits of community right-to-know legislation in the United States, began to express the need for public access to pollutant information as a basis for responding to and preventing industrial pollution. We learned that a critical tool of the community right-to-know system in the United States was the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). But in the early 1990s, such a system for Mexico seemed unattainable, given the lack of legal footing or technical expertise in this field.

However, as a result of NAFTA and increased globalization, Mexico began working toward meeting standards comparable to those of the United States and Canada related to the public's right to know about pollutants in their locales. Although such data are not yet fully available in Mexico, the support of the international community in encouraging interaction between the government and community organizations has greatly facilitated Mexico's first steps in rising to this challenge, which is so vital to the prevention of pollution.

In 1994, the Mexican government began to address this issue, under recommendations from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to which it had just become a member. The United Nations Institute of Training and Research (UNITAR) facilitated a multistakeholder process to design a TRI-like system, known as the Registro de Emisiones y Transferencia de Contaminantes (RETC-the pollutant release and transfer register), which included the participation of community groups that had been advocating locally for right-to-know initiatives. Sustained support to assist in its implementation by the Mexican National Institute of Ecology (INE) has since come from CEC, and some funding for community group projects has come from CEC's North American Fund for Environmental Cooperation (NAFEC).

A pollutant release and transfer register is a type of inventory that is used as a tool for collecting and disseminating information on chemicals, including emissions to air, water and land, and transfers off-site to various types of waste disposal or treatment facilities. It can be used by governments to gain an understanding about the sources and amounts of chemicals in urban areas, in order to target those problems with pollution prevention policies and programs, and track their progress. In countries where such registers are in use, they have also helped industries to identify opportunities to improve their management of chemicals and show the public how they prevent pollution. As community representatives, our interest in accessing pollutant release and transfer register data is to facilitate the dialogue among government, industry, and the public about how chemicals are being managed, in order to empower citizens in decisions that might affect their communities.

This fact of knowledge empowerment in decisions affecting public health has not gone unnoticed by citizen groups and local communities. Over the past five years, the Mexican groups involved in this field have tripled in number, and have been strengthened by being able to network among themselves and with their counterparts in the United States and Canada. The common goal has been to strive toward a Mexican pollutant release and transfer register system that will generate data comparable to its North American counterparts (the TRI in the United States and the National Pollutant Release Inventory—NPRI—in Canada). Such a system would have the virtue of contributing to a North America-wide analysis of the national pollutant release and transfer registers, known as the Taking Stock report. This report has been prepared and published by CEC for the past four years, and is supported by all three North American national environmental agencies.

The Mexican RETC, because the country's authorities accept the fundamental principles for which it stands, has already empowered a number of communities in different Mexican states to seek greater awareness about local pollution problems and help identify opportunities for their prevention. The interest that different States have demonstrated in creating their own pollutant release and transfer registers for facilities under state jurisdiction has increased to the point that there will be a meeting this November at which at least 10 Mexican states will discuss their strategies.

Along the way, developing Mexican pollutant release and transfer registers will surely continue to be challenged by the necessity for more rigorous regulations and technical upgrading. But perhaps our most important challenge, as citizen protection groups, will be to develop these registers into a practical service that will not only satisfy the demand for access to information, but also yield data of sufficient quality that it can be useful for pollution prevention initiatives locally, nationally and internationally.

About the contributor

Laura Durazo
Laura Durazo was born in Mexico City and educated in history and social anthropology. In northern Baja California, where she has made her home for the past 20 years, she has been extensively involved in environmental projects and community right-to-know advocacy. Starting out by developing an environmental education curriculum for a single Tijuana school which developed into a binational teacher training program in environmental education, she has broadened her activities to include campaigns to clean up Tijuana beaches, promoting comprehensive environmental policies based upon binational watershed-based geographic information, serving on the national coordinating group working to develop Mexico?s pollutant release and transfer register, and helping to develop the legal framework required to enforce community right-to-know about hazardous substances. Presently, she serves as director of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental in Tijuana.

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