13 Dec PROPOSED LANDFILL A CONCERN ON BORDER
Corinne Purtill and Daniel Gonzalez, The Arizona Republic
A proposed hazardous-waste landfill 25 miles south of Arizonaâ€™s border with Mexico has outraged residents on both sides, who say the huge project threatens their health, environment and sacred lands. The privately owned landfill would span more than 200 acres on a site where water flows southwest toward the Gulf of California and the wind blows northeast toward Arizona.
The project has sailed through Mexicoâ€™s permitting process with little input from local residents and belated notice to the United States, in violation of an international agreement.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded in a report this month that the landfill poses no risk to the United States and that the agency will take no further action to dissuade Mexico from its plans.
But the EPA noted several times in its report that there is insufficient information to accurately assess all the risks.
That position has outraged activists from the Tohono Oâ€™odham Nation, an Indian community straddling the Arizona-Sonora border that holds an annual sacred ceremony less than 13 miles from the proposed landfill.
On Sunday, about 1,000 protesting residents of the city where the landfill is proposed blockaded the main road from Puerto Penasco, the popular tourist destination also known as Rocky Point. Arizona and Pima County officials say the landfillâ€™s plans donâ€™t ensure the safety of surrounding residents and natural resources.
The only thing blocking the landfill now is the opposition of the Mexican city of Sonoyta, which has refused to issue a permit out of concern for residentsâ€™ health and safety. And until the proposed site is changed, activists say theyâ€™ll keep fighting.
â€œWe want a dialogue. We want answers. We want the truth,â€ said Dr. David Mota Cienfuegos, an orthodontist and lifelong Sonoyta resident.
Need for waste disposal
Both sides of the border have acknowledged for years the need for another hazardous-waste disposal facility in Mexico.
International law requires U.S. companies that operate in Mexico to truck their hazardous waste back across the border for disposal here.
Mexican-owned companies can dispose of hazardous waste in either the countryâ€™s facility in Monterrey or take it to one of the United Statesâ€™ 47 hazardous-waste facilities.
There are no hazardous-waste landfills in Arizona. A hazardous-waste incinerator proposed near Mobile in 1990 was halted by major community protests.
In 1999, Mexico and the United States signed an agreement requiring both countries to inform the other within 30 days of becoming aware of any hazardous-waste facility proposed within 62 miles of the border.
But Mexicoâ€™s secretary for the environment and natural resources didnâ€™t inform the EPA, its U.S. counterpart, about the proposed landfill until September 2005, long past the 30-day deadline.
The plans submitted by SEMARNAT (the Spanish acronym for the Mexican environmental agency) call for a 247-acre landfill designed to hold 3.38 million cubic meters of hazardous waste, the equivalent of 16 million 55-gallon drums.
Itâ€™s unclear what hazardous waste the landfill will accept.
The EPA notes what it wonâ€™t take in, things like radioactive materials, explosives and infectious biological waste. It could, however, accept corrosives, cyanide and solvents as many of the U.S. hazardous-waste sites do.
The proposed site is 12.9 miles from Quitovac, a tiny, impoverished community in Mexico. Its residents are members of the Tohono Oâ€™odham Nation, which considers certain communities extending up to 90 miles into Mexico as part of their country.
Quitovac houses a boarding school for Oâ€™odham children ages 6 to 16, tribal member Ofelia Rivas said. It is also the site of an annual sacred ceremony.
This spring, Rivas formed the Oâ€™odham Rights Group, which vigorously lobbied SEMARNAT and the EPA to relocate the landfill.
The tribeâ€™s Legislative Council passed a resolution in June opposing the project.
Similar opposition started brewing in Sonoyta, a city of about 15,000 people 30 miles from the proposed landfill.
Residents started organizing in May after priests Santiago Robles and David Hurtado of the Sacred Family Catholic Church told parishioners about the project during Mass.
Residents fear toxic chemicals from the landfill could leech into rivers and underground aquifers that drain into the Gulf of California near Rocky Point, harming the areaâ€™s fishing and tourism industries, Mota Cienfuegos said.
They also worry it could pollute the nearby 600-square-mile Sierre del Pinacate Reserve national park.
And they accuse the Mexican government of approving the project without properly notifying them.
â€œAll this was done in silence,â€ Mota Cienfuegos said. â€œIf the people of Sonoyta donâ€™t want it, they have to respect our right to reject it.â€
Assessment of impacts
The EPA did its own assessment of the landfillâ€™s impacts on the U.S. after the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the Tohono Oâ€™odhams expressed concerns about SEMARNATâ€™s data on the project.
The EPA released its final assessment Nov. 9. The report looked only at potential effects on the U.S., not surrounding communities in Mexico.
It concluded that U.S. surface and groundwater would likely not be affected by the plant. Air contamination could be possible in a worst-case scenario such as an explosion, the report said.
However, David Jones, associate director of the waste-management division for the EPAâ€™s Pacific Southwest Region, said he is â€œconfidentâ€ that the contaminants could not travel all the way to the Arizona border.
He also expressed doubt that contaminants in water could reach the Gulf of California.
As far as the Oâ€™odhamsâ€™ concerns, the EPA suggested only that SEMARNAT â€œdirectly consultâ€ the tribe to address its concerns.
Because the facility doesnâ€™t directly affect the U.S., the EPA wonâ€™t interfere with Mexicoâ€™s plans to build it, Jones said.
â€œ(If) the impact is unlikely â€¦ whatâ€™s my authority for making what I would consider gratuitous comments?â€ Jones said.
That position has outraged activists, who say the EPA is ignoring its responsibility to protect American tribes.
â€œIt is a pattern of â€¦ the lack of recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, whether itâ€™s in Mexico or the United States,â€ said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. â€œWe tend to be at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to our protection of our environment and our health.â€
Residents on edge
Sonoyta residents fear a new municipal president and five new council members elected Sept. 16 could allow the landfill.
Raul Contreras, the new municipal president of Sonoyta, could not be reached Tuesday. But Ernesto Castro Hernandez, director of planning for municipal development in Sonoyta, said the company that owns the project has not reapplied for a land-use permit.
Little is known about the private company, Centro de Gestion Integral de Residuos, or CEGIR.
It is based in Hermosillo, Sonora, according to Arizona Department of Environmental Quality documents.
Mota Cienfuegos said residents are still on edge. They are considering a peaceful march in Rocky Point later this month to keep pressure on the government not to build the landfill near Sonoyta.
The blockades have â€œbeen very effective,â€ said Ofelia Rivas of the Oâ€™odham group. â€œAll these people, tourists, go and play in the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). â€¦ These people should be concerned.â€
* The proposed landfill is a private venture owned by Centro de Gestion Integral de Residuos, S.A. de C.V., of Hermosillo, Sonora.
* It would be located on 247 acres about 25 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border.
* It would be located in the municipality of Sonoyta, which so far has refused to issue a permit.
* The site is 35.8 miles from Lukeville and 92.3 miles from Tucson.
* It is designed to accept 45,000 metric tons a year of hazardous waste for 50 years.
* The facility will accept mostly hazardous wastes from companies in Sonora. It is prohibited from accepting certain materials, including radioactive material, explosives, toxic chemicals and infectious biological waste.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
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