The first meeting of the Joint Advisory Committee on Air Quality for the Paso del Norte Region (Cuenca Paso del Norte para Control del Aire) took place in November in El Paso, Texas to discuss ways of solving air pollution problems that have plagued El Paso, TX, Ciudad Juarez, Chi and Sunland Park, NM for years. The 20 member group, said to be the first of its kind, is made up of local, state and federal officials, business leaders and environmental groups from both sides of the international border. Its task is to make recommendations for air quality programs on both sides of the border. The committee was formed after extensive negotiations between the United States and Mexico culminating in an agreement signed by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Mexico’s Secretary on Foreign Relations, Jose Angel Gurria, in May.

The purpose in forming the committee is to get both countries to recognize that air moves unimpeded over El Paso, Juarez and southern Dona Ana County in New Mexico, to recognize that the only strategy that will work is one that takes into account the air movement in the basin and to use the joint committee to take local ideas to state and federal bodies for consideration and action and to solicit grants and loans to help solve the problems.

Two agreements and four proposals were to be considered. The first agreement centered on supporting a proposal to establish a common index on air quality in the region and keep the different communities informed of that index. Currently air pollution is measured using different systems in the United States and Mexico. A standard index would allow daily reports to note pollution levels in different parts of Juarez, El Paso and Sunland Park. As part of that agreement, the group considered three proposals: which standards for air quality to use – Mexico’s IMECA, (Indice Metropolitano de Contaminacion Ambiental), IMEXA, (Indice Mexicano de Contaminacion Ambiental) or the U.S PSI (Pollution Standard Index);developing statistics on local level of pollutants and establishing a correct index; and finally providing information to both sides of the border using both temperatures standards, Fahrenheit and Centigrade. The second agreement included sending a letter to the State Congress and Executive Branch, requesting changes in the law requiring a vehicle emission sticker.

According to data from the Juarez General Police, there are 360,000 cars operating in the City and an estimated 60% of these cars are 1985 models or older. Furthermore, the ITESM calculates that only about 15 to 20% of the cars in Juarez meet proper emission standards while the rest have either never been checked or aren’t checked enough to indicate whether an engine tune up is required.

While the region shares a common “air shed”, solutions to the issue of air pollution have long been hampered by local, state, federal and international jurisdictions. For example, the City of Juarez does not have accurate data on the levels and types of pollutants in the air on any given day. Without statistics on numbers of particles in the air or access to the measuring equipment that is operated by Mexico’s Environmental Protection Agency, city officials state that they are unable to design a plan for controlling the problem. In addition, the city is unable to issue accurate warnings to residents regarding high pollution levels.

One of the most recent studies on Juarez air quality, done by Universidad Autonoma Ciudad Juarez (UACJ) in June 1995, indicated that the problem is due mostly to “the presence of carbon monoxide and suspended particles,” because of automobiles and unpaved streets. The study was done by Lucy Mar Cabacho, with information from 35% of the companies operating in the city. The research showed Juarez has about 32,746 tons of particles coming from the sources listed above. From industrial ovens (45.64); vehicles (2,096); industry (6,202); trash (0.039); and unpaved streets (30,420). Sulfur dioxide was reported to be 4,330 tons, stationed sources (1,960); vehicles (575) industries (1,794); and trash (0.00333). Nitrogen oxides are 23,728 tons, stationed sources (299.2); vehicles (10,949); industries (12,520); and trash (0.011). Hydro-carbons are 16,695 tons, stationed sources (14.95); vehicles (15,317); industries (1,363); and trash (0.052). Carbon Monoxide was 411,634 tons , stationed sources (46.17); vehicles (393,140); industries (18,448); trash (0.144) and unpaved streets (30,420).

Air pollution measured on the El Paso side of the border has improved over the past seven years, from 29 violations of the federal air quality standards in 1989 to only 3 violations so far in 1996. Two of the 1996 violations occurred in the first two weeks of November, due to temperature inversions in the Rio Grande valley. Pollution generated on the U.S. side comes primarily from vehicle emissions along with industrial emissions. To combat vehicle pollution, El Pasoans use gasoline with added oxygen in the fall and winter which cuts down on carbon monoxide and in the summer residents use Low Vapor Pressure gasoline which is harder to burn and evaporates less in the summer heat. Emission testing is also required for all El Paso County registered vehicles.

Ultimately, 6 different projects were agreed upon by the Committee as follows:

1. The plan “Border Crossing 2000” to reduce the time automobiles wait to cross into the United States at the three international bridges.

2. The agreement “Emissions and Credit Deal” whereby U.S businesses that finance equipment for Juarez industry will be able to adjust their contaminant emissions.

3. To complete an “Inventory of Emissions” that would inventory all the businesses in the Paso Del Norte Region.

4. On the Mexican side, Juarez authorities committed to begin compulsory inspections of automobiles.

5. In Juarez, regarding the brickmakers industry, establishing specific rules regulating the use of solid fuels such as tires, wood, and sawdust.

6. To copy the pollution index system Imeca used in the Federal District in Mexico City for measuring atmospheric contamination in Ciudad Juarez.

One stumbling block to solving the problem of automobile emissions on the Mexican side of the border is the cost of vehicle tune-ups. The tune-ups or oil changes, recommended by the authorities, are very expensive for the regular salary earner. According to a survey published in Diario de Juarez of local mechanic shops, the price for a tune up runs from 380 to 480 pesos, which represents 21 days salary at minimum wages, (22.60p). An oil change runs from 25 to 90 peso, including materials and labor.

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