Mexico's pollution release and transfer registry: Long road yet to go

Canada has it. The United States has it, too. Mexico doesn't, and the question remains: What to do? Through mandatory reporting to Pollution Release and Transfer Registries (PRTRs), the two northern nations track toxic emissions by industry. The results are pollution reductions and cost savings. But so far, what Mexico tracks is only its painfully slow progress toward a reliable registry.

by Talli Nauman


This article originally appeared Dec. 18, 2000 in the borderlines UPDATER (, an email-based border news and commentary publication produced by BIOS - Border Information and Outreach Service. BIOS is a public information and policy analysis project based in southern New Mexico. For more information visit

t wasn't the first time that I had seen pictures of barrels labeled "toxic chemicals" abandoned clandestinely in the Mexican desert. It wasn't the first time that I had heard about area residents using such barrels to store drinking water. Yet the photos and findings on alleged PCBs illegally dumped at Nuevo Mercurio, Zacatecas, presented by university experts at this fall's National Conference on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), held in Mexico City, curdled my blood.

According to researchers Héctor René Vega Carrillo and Eduardo Manzanares Acuña, of the Centro Regional de Estudios Nucleares de la Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, the contents of many of the barrels were simply dumped on the ground and burned, leaving mounds of toxic ash at the Rosicler Mine site at Nuevo Mercurio, a poor rural community located 93 miles north of the Zacatecas state capital.

The PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) allegedly dumped at Nuevo Mercurio are among the "Dirty Dozen" chemicals targeted for a ban proposed at the UN conference on POPs in Johannesburg, South Africa in early December 2000. The burning of PCBs releases dioxins, another of the Dirty Dozen. Like all POPs, these chemicals cause death, disease, and birth defects in humans and other animals. Easily and widely dispersed via the air and in water, they enter the food chain and eventually build up in the fatty substances of the body.

While a study earlier this year sponsored by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) showed that dioxins generated by waste burning in Mexico reach as far as the Arctic Circle, where concentrations are high in Inuit Indian mothers' milk, an even more recent study revealed by Greenpeace Mexico found problems much closer to home: in Mexican butter made from Mexican cow's milk.


No answers, only questions


Obviously, Mexico is not alone in its careless disposition of contaminants. But one of the scariest, and unfortunately little-recognized, facts about Mexico's pollution prevention policy is that the country has absolutely no requirement whatsoever for reporting toxic waste discharges in its territory.

This shocking reality persists, despite post-NAFTA agreements signed under the auspices of the trinational CEC, that Mexico would develop a mandatory reporting system similar to the Pollution Release and Transfer Registries (PRTRs) used in the United States and Canada to track toxic emissions.

Without that, the barrels of abandoned hazardous waste will continue to mount, and so too the levels of poisons in North America's shared food, water, and air supplies. If hazardous waste generators don't track their outputs, they can't minimize or mitigate them. If environmental service providers have no clear picture of the areas of demand, they can't find their markets. If the government has no record of who's emitting toxics -- and where, when, in what volume, and of what kind it can't enforce laws controlling them. And if the public has no access to the information, it can't pressure for concrete steps to be taken to protect public health and the environment.


Mexico's proposed system not good enough, final reporting rules still pending


During the recent six-year administration of Ernesto Zedillo -- the first to govern under NAFTA, and the first to have a bona-fide environmental ministry -- Mexican authorities launched an effort to convince industry to voluntarily report its hazardous waste outputs through "Annual Operation Form" reports.

Some industry leaders, such as Nissan Mexicana and Dupont de México, which use environmental management systems and have ISO 140001 certification, willingly submitted the information. What's more, they advocate mandatory compliance.

Says Nissan Environmental Control and Energies Superintendent José Campos García: "We have no problem with the idea of mandatory reporting. Rather than affecting us, reporting benefits us, because it shows us as an example." Dupont Safety, Health, and Environment Manager Carlos Gaitán agrees: "I personally find a lot of benefit in reporting everything together, in having a database and an inventory."

But many companies -- especially smaller ones that lack resources for training in environmental management -- are reticent to participate in the voluntary reporting system, partly for fear that it will reflect badly on them. Only 1,129 of the 2,653 industries licensed by Mexico's National Ecology Institute (INE) in the 1997-1998 period reported on the nature of their dangerous emissions, according to the First National Progress Report on the Registry of Emissions and Transfer of Contaminants (RETC) concluded by the INE in January 2000.

"We don't obtain very reliable results," says Hilda Martínez Salgado, INE's chief of environmental projects in the Zedillo administration.

Nonetheless, INE bowed to anti-RETC forces in its proposal for rules on RETC reporting published in Mexico's Diario Oficial de la República in September 2000: That proposal calls for only voluntary and confidential reporting.

In the required 60-day public comment period on the proposal, INE received dozens of submissions from NGO representatives demanding that the rules include mandatory reporting, as well as public access to names and addresses of toxics generators, and measures to ensure RETC conformity with US and Canadian PRTRs. By law, authorities now must respond publicly to the submissions before dictating the final rules.

Meanwhile, as Mexico falls further and further behind its northern neighbors in reporting its hazardous waste, the CEC increasingly is pumping up its support for efforts to reverse the trend.

The CEC has helped fund numerous projects, using money from the three federal governments it comprises. Some of the results:

  • INE coordinated a pilot project for a voluntary RETC in the central state of Queretaro, involving 80 of the 1,227 industries there -- but gleaned reports from only 39.
  • A dozen Mexican states are developing their own mandatory pollution reporting schemes, a step that should nudge forward the system on the federal plane, according to CEC Technical Cooperation Program Manager Erica Phipps.
  • The Agua Prieta, Sonora NGO Enlace Ecológico has been trying since 1987 to involve the community in establishing a local RETC, and after several attempts, only now has achieved the consensus for a mandatory registry of 34 industries.
  • In San Diego-Tijuana, the Environmental Health Coalition tried to get 20 companies from Tijuana's largest industrial complex to report their chemical use, but ended up with partial reports from only eight, and now is working with just three to demonstrate, through outside consultants, that pollution reporting identifies opportunities for prevention that are cheaper than tail-end damage control.
  • Mexico City-based Emisiones Espacio Virtual del Programa LaNeta is operating an Internet-based clearinghouse for NGOs to improve access to information on toxics and PRTR potential in Mexico.
  • The CEC's Fund to Support Pollution Prevention Projects is making incentive loans for training to small and midsize businesses that report their hazardous discharges. Twelve loans have been approved and 16 are in the pipeline. But with those, all available money has been used or earmarked, while a much greater demand exists, according to CEC Consultant Arturo Rodríguez Abitia.
  • Last November, the CEC brought together dozens of representatives of various sectors to a forum in Tijuana entitled "Forging Alliances to Prevent Industrial Pollution." At the conference, debate flourished on the comparative benefits of voluntary and mandatory reporting in Mexico -- as well it might, given that enforcement of required environmental measures is notoriously lax nationwide, effectively reducing obligatory actions to the status of voluntary.

Federal Environmental Prosecutor's representative Jaime Garcia Sepúlveda told conference participants that the federal Clean Production Program, an alternative effort which certifies industries that participate in a Voluntary Environmental Audit scheme, has convinced 1,703 industries to clean up their acts while sheltering them from sanctions. (The approval of regulations institutionalizing the voluntary audit system for companies that opt to use it was announced by environmental authorities several days later.)

One attendee took the microphone to remind conference attendees that some of the greatest works of humankind have been voluntary, but Paul Orum, director of the Washington, DC-based Working Group on Community Right-to-Know met that statement with skepticism. "I know of no voluntary system," he told listeners, "where there's been success: Voluntary right-to-know initiatives always fail."

Orum cited several examples, such as a 1994 instance in which the US EPA and the state of California separately requested pollutant release data from US-owned facilities operating in Mexico. Less than a dozen responded, despite the stature of the governments behind the request, he said.

Orum's organization calculates that, based on CEC studies, only 5 percent of industries in Mexico report their release data.


What next?

Clearly, if Mexico hopes to achieve a credible RETC, serious work will need to occur on many different fronts. Pressure and assistance from the CEC and the other NAFTA governments can help, but will need to occur in a way that respects Mexico's sovereignty and special concerns. Within Mexico, inter-sector cooperation, financial incentives, environmental education and training for academics and business, public pressure, massive information distribution, and strong government policy are among the top prerequisites for reaching the goal. Ultimately, the Mexican government will have to choose to take this route -- pressure from civil society can help lead them toward that decision.

"PRTRs are here to stay and will become increasingly important worldwide," says the CEC's Erica Phipps.

Green groups in Mexico are saying the same thing.

Now Mexico's new government just has to accept it.

Talli Nauman has worked as a foreign correspondent in Mexico since 1987. Under the auspices of the MacArthur Foundation, she initiated the six-year-old Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness project, of which she is codirector. She is a frequent contributor to Borderlines.

This article was reprinted with the permission of BIOS ~ Border Information and Outreach Service, a nonprofit public information and policy studies project of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). More detailed information on BIOS is available at