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The Planet

The Planet
December 1998 Volume 5, Number 10

on the border

Big Bend Blues

by John Byrne Barry

When Fran Sage retired and moved with her husband from Austin to rural Brewster County in West Texas, she never expected to become a leader in a fight against air pollution.

After all, people moved to West Texas because it was clean.

Much to her surprise, some days she can't see the mountains 10 miles away. In Big Bend National Park, 70 miles south of her home, visibility, which is 150 miles on clear days, has plummeted to as low as 20.

Two years ago, Sage and eight others formed a new Sierra Club group, which today has 80 members.

The new Big Bend Group assumed the sulfur dioxide and particulates were coming from the coal-fired Carbon I and II power plants south of Piedras Negras, Mexico, which supply the burgeoning maquiladoras export zone. The second of those plants had just begun operating at full capacity.

The plants, which have no smokestack scrubbers, do not meet U.S. air-quality standards, but comply with Mexican law. Under NAFTA's weak environmental provisions, that's good enough.

The visibility problems were becoming markedly more severe, says Sage. Are Carbon I and II the culprits? Not entirely, according to preliminary results of an April 1997 study by the National Park Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Mexican counterpart. Some pollution may be coming from power plants in northeast Texas, which have been "grandfathered" - that is, exempted from current clean-air laws because they were built before the laws were passed.

"The next step," says Sage, "is a tracer study to discover how many pollutants are coming from which sources. We can't very well point the finger at these Mexican plants if we don't clean up our own act."

The group, which has been receiving technical and legal support from Mary Kelly and the Texas Center for Policy Studies, is also asking for studies of the health impact of this pollution.

For more information: Contact Fran Sage at (915) 364-2362;

Go on to the next article, "Tijuana Trouble"

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