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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

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The New Wave of Border Activism
Social Movements Crossing Frontiers
by Kent Paterson


Reality Tourists in a Border City
Another highlight of the BSF was a "reality tour" of low-income Ciudad Juarez neighborhoods and industrial sites. Halting on the banks of the Rio Grande in the Felipe Angeles colonia, reality tour guests peered directly across the river at the mothballed Asarco copper smelter located in El Paso but also only a couple of miles from the southern New Mexico city of Sunland Park. The old smelter is a rusting emblem of how environmental issues affect communities on both sides of the border.

Shut down in 1999, the plant is at the center of a fight between Asarco's owner, Grupo Mexico, and environmental groups and political leaders from Mexico and the United States over the company's plans to renew its Texas state environmental permit and restart production. The Carlyle Group associated with George Herbert Walker Bush is a principal investor in Grupo Mexico.

Asarco opponents maintain that a revived smelter will degrade an already polluted binational airshed, and they blame the transnational company for decades of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals contamination of neighborhoods in El Paso, Ciudad Juarez and Sunland Park — a problem the company denies was its fault. Immediately preceding the BSF, the Sierra Club [well, it was a Sierra Club member, but the actual news came from EPGTLO and SPEG] released a memo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that reported Asarco had been illegally incinerating hazardous wastes during the 1990s. The document did not spell out exactly what Asarco burned.

Mariana Chew, the Sierra Club's El Paso–Ciudad Juarez field organizer, retorted during the reality tour that the environmental organization wants answers about what was burned and why the information was concealed from the public. "They knew it and they didn't tell us," Chew affirmed, adding that the Sierra Club demands the permanent closure of the Asarco site and the cleanup of its environs.

In a press statement, Asarco minimized the incineration revelation, contending that the company had merely recycled materials and had cleared up the matter with the EPA years ago. But Jacqueline Barragan, a member of the Students Against Asarco group at the University of Texas El Paso, which is situated behind the old plant and afflicted with "hot spots" of lead contamination, was aghast at the news of the EPA memo. "I felt violated, and actually it wasn't a surprise either that the city has covered this up and that these environmental agencies that are supposedly out there to watch out for our health aided in covering up this terrible secret," Barragan fumed....."


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