By Fabián Carvallo Vargas*

Mexico’s federal government found that 35 years ago in Tijuana, Amexco S.A. de C.V., began illegally dumping 30,000 cubic meters of lead waste and slag, under the pretense of recycling vehicle batteries imported from California. By 1996, when the Federal Attorney General for Environmental Protection analyzed the options for remediation, the U.S. corporation Alco Pacifico Inc. had  assumed the liability. Mexican law requires the return of hazardous waste to the country of origin, but authorities allowed the waste to be loaded onto a train and sent in canvas bags to the Cytrar toxic waste facility in Hermosillo. Surrounding communities are concerned about environmental health, cancer and related deaths.

Cleanup and investigation remain to be addressed, as do the unanswered questions from the inhabitants of both Tijuana and Hermosillo. Meanwhile the traffic in used batteries continues to grow.

Yet, hope has arisen for preventing similar scenarios in the future.

This hope comes from an independent study ordered by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC),with input from environmental groups,  industry, and the pollutant registers of the three parties to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The study’s recommendations, published on Nov. 30, and already five years in the making, could help bring about the end of battery shipments from the northern partners to those in the south.

During the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists recently held in Lubbock, Texas, representatives of CEC and the NGO SLAB Watchdog stressed the urgency for the proper recycling of spent lead-acid batteries (SLABs) that are sent to Mexico. Participants agreed that the reports submitted by the NGOs Fronteras Comunes and OK International created a cross border reaction in civil society akin to a bomb going off.

Jeff Stoub, manager of Communications and Publications of the CEC, told Melóncoyote that battery recycling is approaching 100 percent success as it is less expensive than using new materials from mines.

They are products everyone uses in cars and motorcycles; they are important for the economy because they store electricity.

The manager said the CEC has worked very closely with environmental groups, industry, and governmental environmental agencies the three countries to see how they are handling these batteries. The challenge of the CEC is to determine if there is good management of the used batteries as well as if there is lack of enforcement of the law.

Regarding a time-frame for final resolution of this problem, Stoub industry is moving ahead to improve processes and protect the health of workers as well as people in the communities near recycling plants. The United States is making it rules increasingly strict, he added.

Diane Cullo, SLAB Watchdog director, told Melóncoyote the organization's main goal is to eliminate SLAB exports from the United States to Mexico and thereby protect the health of communities and jobs for this country.

Cullo said she believes that in the wake of the report's release, the United States government and recycling companies need to reach agreement and regulate this situation so that there will be even more progress in the coming years.

She added that the recycling of batteries is subject to stricter regulation in the U.S. than in Mexico and emphasized that Mexicans have no need for waste from the United States, a country that has the ability to process its own waste..  In the United States the best available technology is used for the recycling of batteries and the technology used in Mexico is as much as 20 years behind.
Grassroots Bulletin on Sustainable Development in Northwest Mexico
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International Environmental Authorities, NGOs Highlight Danger of Improper Lead Battery Recycling
According to Cullo, it is essential to protect the health of children and the environment in both Mexico and the United States. She explains that the people who suffer the most from the export of these batteries live in poor cities that have neither a voice nor a vote. She applauded Jacott for having taken on the role of speaking for them and working with the U.S. NGO.

In fact, Jacott and Azucena Franco, also of Fronteras Comunes, involved several Mexican and cross-border environmental groups in writing the comments that supported the study and the recommendations in the forthcoming publication from the CEC.

Cullo stressed that along with the CEC report, the United States government needs to take the initiative in preventing used batteries from being sent to developing countries.

"This is a very important issue for consumers, for the federal government and the companies that are involved," she said. "We must protect the environment and the health of workers in the United States and Mexico by stopping shipments to Mexico of used batteries."

*Master in Communications from the National Autonomous University of Mexico
with 15 years experience in environmental journalism

NGOs are trying to put an end to the importation of spent lead-acid batteries. Photos: courtesy of CCA
However, if the recycling is not managed well, there are high risks to both the recycling workers and the communities living around recycling plants. The risks of mismanagement include the fact that lead is a persistent and bio-accumulative neurotoxin that poses problems for health, especially to children's brain development.

Lead poisoning is one of the most serious threats to environmental health for children. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 120 million people are overexposed to lead, which is about three times the number of people infected with HIV/AIDS. This could be seen in the presentation by Marisa Jacott of Fronteras Comunes during a CEC workshop in Mexico City in October 2012.

Stoub explained that imports of used batteries from the United States to Mexico have increased by 450 percent since 2007. There are around 25 recycling plants operating legally in Mexico, with Nuevo Leon being the state with the most battery recycling facilities. Environmental groups also point out the existence of clandestine battery recycling sites.

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