Big Bend Conservancy
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Effort, not rhetoric, cleans up the environmentEditorial BoardEnvironmental problems have plagued areas as remote as Big Bend National Park For years, people who depended on the health of the Rio Grande or breathed the air around Big Bend National Park would call attention to environmental deterioration that affected all aspects of life on the border. The border can offer some spectacular vistas, but the panoramas can't always hide environmental problems. The Rio Grande was called an open sewer. Big Bend in far West Texas was not so remote that it was untouched by dirty air from other parts of the state and from Mexico. Of the six Mexican states that border the U.S., Texas shares an ecosystem with four of them. California, Arizona and New Mexico split the other two. And for years, their pleas, complaints and comments were duly noted, filed away and more often than not ranked fairly low on a list of national and state priorities. That started to change in 1983 when the U.S. and Mexico agreed that air and water quality along the border had to be improved. A decade later, the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, and that pact included environmental safeguards. Though NAFTA promised to pay significant economic dividends, development along the U.S.-Mexican border intensified environmental pressure on the region. Almost three decades after the signing of the La Paz agreement and nearly 20 years after the NAFTA accord, the U.S. and Mexican governments are still looking for solutions to some very old problems.The agreements' economic consequences also had environmental ones, and more than a decade later, both governments are looking for solutions. Last week, the U.S. and Mexican governments reiterated a mutual commitment to cleaning up the border. There is no such thing as done when it comes to environmental cleanup. People create waste that has an impact on air and water quality. Something as thoughtless as dumping tires poses a variety of health and safety hazards. The 2,000 mile stretch shouldn't be known for illness that comes from dirty air and polluted water.The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has, of course, a significant role to play in the ongoing efforts to improve air and water quality along the border, but officials may find it awkward when Gov. Rick Perry uses the federal environmental agency as a whipping boy. Fortunately, the binational agreement known as Border 2020 relies more on a "bottom up" model that relies on individual communities identifying needs and applying for the aid to meet them rather than dictates from either Mexico City or Washington. Past results of the program included connecting 8.5 million border residents with drinking water and wastewater services. More than 12 million scrap tires that breed disease and pollute the air if ignited have been removed from dump sites all along the U.S.-Mexico border. In addition, EPA officials say that 75.5 metric tons of obsolete pesticides from rural areas in California and the Mexican states of Sonora and Tamaulipas — one which borders Texas — have been removed.Those are impressive statistics, but as we noted previously, there is no such thing as done when it comes to environmental cleanup. The goals identified in the accord signed last week include:• Reducing air pollution in binational airsheds by promoting vehicle inspection programs and road paving, and encouraging anti-idling technologies such as diesel truck electrification at ports-of-entry.• Improving access to clean and safe water as well as improving water quality in the binational watersheds.• Promoting materials and waste management, and addressing contaminated sites as well as management practices for addressing electronics, lead acid batteries, tires and trash.• Enhancing joint preparedness for environmental and emergency response.• Enhancing compliance assurance and environmental stewardship. Meeting those goals won't be cheap. It certainly won't be easy, given election-year politics. Clean air and clean water shouldn't be political, but in the real world are for both ideological and financial reasons. Nonetheless, no one benefits financially from a workforce that is vulnerable to disease borne of dirty air and dirty water. Texas has a huge stake in the binational accord because of the length of its border with Mexico. Effort, not rhetoric, will protect the state's financial and human investment in border health.
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