This is the final piece of a two-part story on air pollution on the U.S.-Mexico border. Click here to read part one.
CALEXICO, CA — Crossing into the United States from Mexico is for Elvira Sánchez an irritating task she’s had to endure ever since she was a teenager growing up on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I hate it,” Sánchez, 27, told ThinkProgress.
A born U.S. citizen who lives in Mexicali, the state capital of Baja California, Sánchez used to cross the border daily on foot to go to school in the small rural town of Calexico, California. Now, as an adult and a single mother, she drives across for work. Sánchez wished she didn’t have to, but a drug and alcohol counselor in Mexico makes much less than the $10 an hour she earns in the United States.
On a good day it will take her 40 minutes to get across, she said. On a bad day, at least an hour and half — if not more. Most days are bad. “I’m so sick of it I’m thinking about accepting a lower paying job in Mexico,” she told ThinkProgress in Spanish.
Sánchez is one of the thousands of border commuters who wait in vehicles for hours, one behind the other, for their turn to reach the booth of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent who checks drivers for passports and contraband before giving the final go-ahead.
Aside from being time-consuming, crossing the border by car is a fossil fuel-intensive enterprise, one that turns vehicles into long lines of idling machines that release harmful particulate matter called PM 2.5, as well as nitrogen oxides (NOx), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can both react with the environment to form harmful ground level ozone, and other greenhouse gases.
Just last July, some 1.1 million passenger cars, 29,000 trucks, and 230 buses came into the United States through one of two of Calexico’s ports of entry, according to the Department of Transportation.
With some 40,000 people, Calexico is Imperial County’s second-largest town and the closest one to Mexicali, a city widely considered one of the most air-polluted in Mexico and, considering its size, likely the most polluted along the U.S-Mexico border aside from Ciudad Juárez. No other Mexican city with less than a million people is close to having as many deaths linked to air pollution, according to the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), and only a handful of much larger cities beat Mexicali.
This is far from a new problem. The region has been experiencing toxic air for decades.
Emissions in Mexicali and Imperial County “are among the most persistent challenges because of hot dry climate, growing population, and a complex mix of sources, including unpaved roads, natural desert, residential and commercial burning, and agricultural activity,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in a statement to ThinkProgress.
Officials and experts on both sides of the border agree that Mexicali, a growing industrial city five times bigger than Imperial County, is the larger air polluter, though Mexicali experts and officials point out U.S. emissions stemming from agricultural field burning, and the industry’s pesticide use, also play an important role in the area’s failing air.
Still, Mexicali’s polluting presence is so strong that last year, Imperial County and the California Air Resources Board said in a particulate matter control plan that if it wasn’t for Mexico, the county would have met PM 2.5 air quality standards in 2012, the EPA told ThinkProgress.
So if there is one place in Imperial County getting the full effect of Mexicali’s emissions from vehicles, desert, legal or illegal burning, and everything else, that place is Calexico.
In fact, El Centro, the county seat of Imperial County, is slightly bigger than Calexico, yet it has much lower PM 2.5 readings, according to EPA data submitted to ThinkProgress. These toxic particles are much tinier than a human hair, and can come from common smoke or gases from factories or vehicles reacting in the air. PM 2.5 can reach deep into the lungs and bloodstream through breathing, causing a long list of ailments such as decreased lung function, heart attack, aggravated asthma, and premature death, according to the EPA.
Human-caused particulate matter pollution first became an issue across the United States — and the world — after the Industrial Revolution, as power generation, manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture faced few standards and operated with an even heavier environmental footprint. Plants ran without emission filters, vehicles were inefficient, gasoline high in toxins, and agencies didn’t push agriculture to control dust and pesticide use.
That started to change in the late 1960s, however, after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book widely credited with inspiring the modern environmental movement and the creation of the EPA in 1967. Soon after, in 1970, the Republican administration of Richard Nixon signed into law the Clean Air Act, the most influential set of U.S. environmental rules designed to curb national air pollution. From then on emissions of the six most common pollutants: NOx, VOCs, lead, carbon, and particulate matter have declined around 70 percent in the United States, according to an EPA report released in July.
This progress took place as the U.S. economy expanded, and energy use increased, according to the EPA, which suggests more stringent environmental guidelines on transportation, agricultural practices, and energy generation have worked without long term economical implications.
But on the Calexico-Mexicali border — and along the U.S-Mexico border for that matter — where the sky is a dumping ground used by two nations with divergent laws, the purifying power of the Clean Air Act has been limited. Mexico follows its own set of rules, and enforcement can be lax, experts and officials on both sides of the border said. As a result, pollution has remained an issue.
For years, the conventional wisdom said cross-border traffic was a major driver of the region’s pollution because 60 percent of Baja California cars are more than 10 years old — hence dirtier — and idling times have been growing as demand overran the aging ports of entry capacity years ago. However, an Imperial County-commissioned study published late last year found that port of entry traffic might contribute much less air pollution than expected, and moreover, that U.S. cars may be more responsible for emissions at the ports.
“The general assumption by people in the U.S. is that there is a bunch of old dirty Mexican vehicles crossing the border,” said Tom Kear, the report’s author and an expert in transportation planning and management. “The reality is that when you actually look at the age distribution of the vehicles [at the ports], the average age of the Mexican vehicle is a little bit newer than the average age of the U.S. vehicles.”
The amount of pollution a vehicle emits depends on factors like weather, fuel type, the size of a vehicle, and its age. For example, warm and dry weather — the desert’s spring and summer — is more likely to make emissions turn into the type of ozone that can cause respiratory and cardiac problems.
Kear’s theory is that whenever Imperial County residents cross to Mexicali, they generally drive the older car they own. That may stem from fear of theft, or to avoid the wear and tear of Mexicali roads. If “you need to drive down to Mexicali for something, are you going to grab the brand new car, or are you are going to grab the one that is 10 or 15 years old to drive?” he said.
He added the ports of entry, and especially the west port closer to downtown, have a substantial localized role in Calexico’s pollution. Yet for Imperial County and Mexicali overall, “the numbers are in the single digits, in the low single digits,” he told ThinkProgress.
“Don’t get me wrong, if you look at one source and you said this source is two percent of the emissions within the region, [that’s] definitely a non-trivial source, but its nowhere near 30 percent or whatever numbers,” he added.
Still, border delays cause 46 percent of NOx emissions, and 53 percent of the PM 2.5 emissions at the ports of entry, according to the study. This suggests curbing idling cars at the border would substantially help Calexico have cleaner air, which has already being improving over the last couple of years according to EPA data.
After several years of delays, Congress in 2014 approved more than $98 million to increase the number of northbound lanes from 10 to 16 at the Calexico downtown port of entry. And then this February, President Obama budgeted more than $248 million for the so-called phase two of the expansion project.
Funding has been a win for local officials who time after time saw money go to the rehabilitation of larger ports of entry like those in San Diego. “The important thing is we got funding for phase one,” county Supervisor John Renison, whose district includes Calexico, told the Imperial Valley Press. “There were a lot of doomsayers that said we wouldn’t get it.”
Another major improvement is a set of newly established laws requiring all commercial trucks entering California — including from Mexico — to comply with state engine and pollution standards, said Kear. “So you can’t just drive a dirty truck from Mexico into California.”
And yet infrastructure improvements along the border and new U.S. laws will likely come up short in making Mexicali’s overall vehicular fleet cleaner, a change that could quickly improve the city’s emissions. Mexicali has one of the highest vehicle density rates in Mexico, and the average Mexicali vehicle travels more than those in Mexico City.
“Better fuel on the Mexican side of the border would make a huge difference,” said Kear, noting for the region “that’s probably the single biggest thing.”
Francisco Javier Espinoza spends most of his days out in the open, on the streets in Pueblo Nuevo, a Mexicali neighborhood located a block away from Calexico and its west port of entry.
Every day he cleans or takes care of cars for a few pesos, while at times helping the local church with basic chores like sweeping. He never bothered before, but starting this spring, the 56-year-old felt compelled to cover his nose and mouth with a mask. Mexicali’s pollution has become too much to bear, he told ThinkProgress.
“The smog, the gasoline, and the fumes. I don’t know, I just can’t take it,” he said, and pointed to a passing car that spewed thick black smog as it made its way down a bumpy, dusty street.
Three years ago, Mexico became the first Latin American country to introduce a vehicle fuel efficiency standard, which reduces both fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions. And last month, it announced that a cap-and-trade system will be rolled out in 2018. That’s on top of a 22 percent reduction in greenhouse gases the country vowed to follow — along with the United States and Canada — as it plans to get half of its electricity from clean sources by 2025.
The country has been slower to address gasoline quality, however, which can quickly reduce emissions but can also affect fuel prices and be politically costly. The quality of Mexican gasoline has been under scrutiny lately because with a requirement of 30 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur, Mexico lags behind the European Union, Japan, and the United States, which all have a 10 ppm sulfur limit. (The United States will implement its sulfur rules next year.)
Sulfur in gasoline makes pollution-reduction systems in cars, called catalytic converters, less efficient, which means more toxic NOx and VOCs reach the air.
In Mexico — a country known for its corruption as much as for its food and music — the debate over gasoline quality intensified earlier this year after Mexico City implemented driving bans following an uptick in pollution levels. One of the allegations was that Mexico, which imports most of its gasoline, has been buying low quality Chinese fuel. Various experts publicly said they doubted whether the country had been meeting its sulfur rules over the past several years in the first place.
“I took the trouble to graph average pollution data from 2006 to 2016,” Héctor Riveros, a physicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told the BBC in May. “And in Mexico City, I don’t see pollution dropping as it should if gasoline with 30 parts per million [of sulfur] is being used.”
Officials vehemently denied they were buying cheap Chinese gasoline to various publications, but noted some areas may be seeing higher sulfur gasoline. Experts and advocates agreed that, with little monitoring, no one knows for sure if Mexico is following its own gasoline standards.
Meanwhile, in Mexicali, corruption at worst — and neglect at best — are ultimately considered the drivers of the city’s tragic air quality. Researchers like Margarito Quintero, an air pollution expert at the Autonomous University of Baja California, say they know burning coal at the fast-growing number of taco shops adds to the burden created by vehicles and industrial sources, yet little is done to address it.
Quintero said that it’s also widely known that the nearby geothermal plant of Cerro Prieto discharges massive amounts of toxins like carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide onto the atmosphere, and yet the federal public utility that owns it is oblivious to implementing systems to curtail pollution. Geothermal plants can be designed as a closed-loop system to shrink emissions to essentially zero.
“The technology is in the market,” he told ThinkProgress. But “there is no planning … there is no interest. If there was, we would see people working on this, and we would move forward.”
Over the past 16 years, the state, the federal government, and experts, including Quintero, have created various strategies to reduce emissions that include outreach campaigns, training, and certifications for industry and society. PROAIRE, a group intended to follow up on the designed programs, was also launched. But Quintero, who is part of PROAIRE, said meetings ceased and the government now seems uninterested.
“What [officials] do is just kick the can down the road for the next administration,” he said. Quintero thinks PROAIRE could be an important tool for improvement.
Jesús Jiménez Payán, Baja California’s subdelegate at the Federal Attorney General’s Office for Environmental Protection, agreed with Quintero that the issue has been abandoned. Payán, a high-ranking federal environmental official, told ThinkProgress that laws go either unenforced or have loopholes that take jurisdiction away from his office, which has also lost funding and now only has seven inspectors to oversee the whole state.
“There is no direct tackling of the problem,” he said. “We just measure it.”
Yet that measurement is unreliable in most of Mexico, according to experts. “We really don’t know that much about the state of the country’s air pollution,” said Fátima Masse, a consultant at IMCO. “Many cities don’t do monitoring and that’s a serious problem.”
Even national emissions data were last updated in 2008, she said, noting that on a local level, only a handful of cities have dependable monitoring systems. Mexicali, which about a decade ago received EPA and California funds to build a network now in disrepair, is not one of them.
To explain the country’s air quality demise, Masse noted that in Mexico, air pollution falls largely on local governments. And because cleaning the air is an expensive, lengthy process, elected officials with short tenures often have other priorities; those who do implement plans may see incoming administrations discontinue these efforts.
“If [Mexicali] doesn’t take a stand on this, it will live through the same things that Mexico City has lived,” Masse said while referring to historic air pollution levels that prompted the first driving restrictions in Mexico City in the late 1980s.
And yet there are some indications of slight improvement. Mexicali is installing new monitors thanks in part to EPA funds. Importing used U.S. cars into Mexico has been restricted. (Though it is questionable how much that will help.) And about 78 percent of Mexicali roads are now paved, according to a recent study. That’s roughly a 10 percent improvement from a decade ago, according to published reports.
In addition, earlier this year Baja California announced it would invest more than $6.5 million in paving Mexicali, though it’s unclear how much of that money will go toward unpaved roads. Still, any paving is significant since the best way to counter dust pollution in Mexicali is with better roads, according to a 2006 state-sponsored study.
Moreover, when Mexico and the United States agreed on the North American Free Trade Agreement in the mid 1990s, they also agreed to create the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, and a sister institution called the North American Development Bank. Together these organizations provide technical support and grant funding for environmental infrastructure projects like paving or water system rehabilitation.
Officials and experts from both sides of the border also meet regularly as part of the Border 2020 Program, an ongoing binational effort designed to protect the environment and public health along the border.
But while the tools and the forums exist, their use is limited. Quintero said Mexicali institutions haven’t taken much advantage of binational funding streams, in part because of a lack of grant funding knowledge.
And Payán, who as an official is invited to Border 2020 task force meetings, said the binational gatherings are well-intentioned and educational, but ultimately fruitless, as Mexico’s institutions and laws are inefficient or unenforced.
He noted for instance that Baja California has implemented more stringent emissions laws for private vehicles, but explained public transportation — which tends to include larger and older vehicles — goes exempt.
“There is no law for them,” said Payán, who went on to add fireworks and bonfires that wreak havoc during the winter holidays go untouched by local laws.
Payán also brought up the Cerro Prieto geothermal plant, and used it as an example of how he’s constantly stonewalled. “If I want to inspect that company, I have to ask the attorney general,” he said, adding he’s tried in the past but got no reply.
“You can’t see the handcuffs I’m wearing and the gag they’ve placed on me, but I don’t care anymore. That’s why I’m talking,” said Payán, 67, adding he’s planning his retirement.
Asked about improvements during his 42 years as an environmental official, Payán told ThinkProgress the only advancement he’s seen is more equipment for monitoring.
Other than that, he said, “we have done either little, or nothing.”