The Mexican government has approved and allocated $900,000 to clean up a former lead smelting plant in Tijuana that has become an infamous example of the obstacle the U.S.-Mexico border poses to enforcing environmental laws.
The business, Metales y Derivados, recycled American batteries before Mexican authorities closed it in 1994. Car batteries were sent there and cracked open with an ax. Lead was yanked out, melted down and returned to the United States.
When the business closed, the battery casings and much of their lead remained. Its owner, Jose Kahn, fled Mexico after criminal charges were lodged against him for violating Mexico’s environmental laws. The elderly man escaped to Point Loma, where he died in 2005 — without ever being prosecuted.
Residents who lived downhill from the abandoned site, in a neighborhood known as Colonia Chilpancingo, feared the lingering pollution and worried that their health problems — miscarriages, birth defects — stemmed from the leftover waste.
The cleanup plan calls for a pit on the site to be excavated and lined, then filled with nearly four million gallons of contaminated waste. The National City-based Environmental Health Coalition, the main advocate for cleanup, has received a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pay for long-term monitoring by community members.
Some cleanup has already taken place. Nearly 2,000 tons of lead were removed in 2005, the first step of an EPA-sponsored cleanup. Soil samples taken then showed high lead levels remained throughout the site and at one spot along a heavily-traveled worker footpath.
Lead constituted 20 percent of one soil sample; 10 percent of another. By comparison, California soil has average lead concentrations of about .002 percent
Work on the final cleanup should begin in October and be finished within three months, said Amelia Simpson, director of the coalition’s border environmental justice campaign.
Simpson said that while the site’s toxic legacy would linger because residents had been exposed to high levels of lead for years, she was overjoyed that a final remedy was now in place.
“We’re celebrating,” Simpson said. “We’re very pleased we could work with the government bi-nationally and get the clean up.”