TED Case Studies

Mexico and Basel Case



CASE NAME: Mexico and Basel

I. Identification

1. The Issue

On the Mexico-US border nearly 2,000 foreign owned factories have sprouted (1). These maquiladoras or "twin cities" draw thousands of Mexican people into the already overpopulated region; thus, making the area a major "cesspool". Twin plants were to act as economy boosters for both the US and Mexico; nevertheless, the border has turned into a huge wasteland, contaminating the countries' air quality, water ways, and soil. The transboundary nature of these damages require an international action in addition to a new definition of national sovereignty when it comes to environmental protection issues.

The EPA's role is to track down the wastes by creating new environmental laws to be used in the Mexican region. In 1994, President Clinton executed a ban on all illegal exports of hazardous wastes within the US, this did not include the waste produced by the American owned maquiladoras in Mexico. It was really an act to ratify the Basel Convention on the control of transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and their disposal. Right now the issue lies with the EPA and its agreements with the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary movements of hazardous wastes into the US from the Mexican region. The UN is currently using the Basel Convention to help the US stop illegal dumping coming into the US from Mexico's city of Cuernavaca.

2. Description

A transboundary environmental problem arises when all or most of the benefits of any pollution-emitting activity accrue to one- nation, while all or most of the costs of that activity accrue to the nation across the border. It is the location of the border and the imbalances of costs and benefits that result between two nations. Environmental concerns are severe in that it now has involved the UN, EPA officials, and the UN Environmental Program of the Basel Convention (see BASEL case). In Cuernavaca, Mexico, the export and import of hazardous wastes have serious adverse effects on the environment and U.S. ecology. Damage to the U.S. ecosystem will soon be uncontrollable if waste disposal is not managed properly. This is the motivation that put the Basel Convention into play.

In Cuernavaca, a plant was built and paid for by the US Filter Corporation of Palm Desert, California. The filter was the first granted to an American company making it the most used in the area. It treats 13.8 million gallons of sewage a day that flows into the Apatlaco River nearby. The plant also is a compost for sludge and toxic wastes.

One of the major roadblocks to solving the environmental problem, has long been the inability of the agency to disprove claims that US owned maquiladoras like Cuernavaca have illegally disposed of hazardous wastes. This has changed. The US environmental Protection Agency has not been able to measure the problem or effectively enforce the law because it lacked a system for monitoring waste shipments crossing the border. However, the EPA has lashed together in the past two years, a viable computerized system that correlates basic waste related documents from the Mexican Maquiladoras into Mexico.

This is an improvement over the past years, plus, it has proven to have positive impacts on the industry. In addition, the EPA proposed a $180,000 in civil penalties last month against four Maquiladora owners that are based in the US. These owners allegedly violated the regulations of the Basel convention by having improperly manifested waste shipments and misidentified drivers. These US owned plants shipped hazardous wastes that derived from imported chemicals back into the U.S. for disposal. The new system of the EPA proved that only 30% of the estimated 1,035 waste-producing maquiladoras surveyed in a 1990 Mexican study had ever filed waste shipping manifests. There were even less that registered to transport waste through the state of Texas, and because of the Computer system, the EPA could not distinguish imported from domestic waste shipments in California.

The new database has allowed both countries to match specific waste streams with individual maquiladoras, pinpoint the improperly identified wastes, haulers, or disposal facilities, and identify waste-generating plants that have rarely made a documented shipment. Environmentalists aren't satisfied completely though, some say that the US and Mexican governments should open resulting data base to public review. Also, EPA officials acknowledge that the data base does not include the Mexican owned manufacturers in the border region, or can it track chemical, sludge streams that grow from a number of maquiladoras that purchase raw materials from Mexican suppliers.

The past two years have brought great transformations with the effort to control environmental disasters in our world, such as that of Cuernavaca. The second major step towards environment protection involves the Basel Convention. This convention was originally negotiated under the auspices of the UN Environment Program. It's goal as defined by the Department of State was the reduction of risks to health and the environment posed by improperly managed wastes.

This case was similar to a Philadelphia garbage barge incident (see Khain case). The horror story behind the Philadelphia barge was one of a barge that left port with 14,000 tons of toxic incinerator heading towards the Caribbean or Africa to dump the waste; nevertheless, the US found the ship under a different name in the middle of Singapore without the tonnage of waste.

Over 116 nations signed the Basel Convention in 1990. Australia was the 20th nation to ratify the Convention. The US was definitely the leader in the framing of the Convention, it was that America no longer wanted to be a nation that happily sent its most toxic wastes to foreign lands. Within the Convention there lies a Waste Export Control Act that proved to have fulfilled the global environmental responsibilities. This Bill really was assigned three duties: First, it requires international agreements between the US and the importing countries, a prior informed consent of the receiving country and detailed information to be exchanged so that receiving facilities operate in a manner that protects human health, and environment. Second, the bill establishes an EPA permit program for exporters. Thirdly, users fees are to be paid by the exporters to defray the full costs of administering the program.

The Presidential proposal has three big problems; one, it exempts the existing bilateral agreements that the US has with Mexico that are self renewing. Next, the bill doesn't define what it views as "environmentally sound management". It is extremely hard to have a meaningful waste export program without a clear cut definition. Finally, the President's bill often fails to provide a means for the US to assure that exported wastes are treated in a safe manner by the receiving disposal site. Furthermore, the bill displays that the President is trying to ask Congress to buy the pig in a poke. It fails to outline what procedural steps another country will have to go through to enter a bilateral agreement with the US. Under the bill, 90% of the hazardous wastes exported by the US would continue to leave US borders under the same system. Article 4, Section 10 of the Basel Convention which states that it is the responsibility of the exporting country to assure that exported wastes are treated in environmentally sound manners and that this responsibility "may not under any circumstances be transferred to the country of import or transit".

The Convention is intended to eliminate the uncontrolled international movement of hazardous wastes. It provides for accountability for waste movement and encourages self-sufficiency in waste treatment and disposal, and to prevent developing countries from becoming dumping grounds. Likewise, it is helping the US control the Maquiladoras by placing more stringent restrictions on imports to the US. The most important part of the Conventions are the definitions it supplies. The Basel Convention Parties all have something in common, they define Waste as "substances or objects which are disposed of by the provisions of national law", unless the national law in this case specifically exempts or omits a specific substance destined for recycling or reclamation are not "Wastes", but articles of trade.

The United States exports the greatest portion of their hazardous waste to its neighbors, Canada and Mexico (see Table 212-1). Canada alone accounted for 65 percent of all U.S.waste exports in 1990. Year-to-year figures are highly volatile, although in general exports rose 54% between 1988 and 1990. Canada's total in 1989 exceeded the value of all U.S. waste exports in 1988. Mexico accounted for 22 percent of U.S. exports in 1989.

Destinations for U.S. Exports of Hazardous Waste (Tons)
Belgium----- 58240
Brazil3,358 3,698------
Canada88,261142,252113,00 0
Finland------ 1,3812,478
Japan------ 78197
South Africa------ 1838
Spain------ 1,053------
Sweden------ 1,3578,657
United Kingdom7811,4978,965
Germa ny------ 1,879589
Source: US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Enforcement

Under the Convention, US exporters would not be able to export such wastes unless there exists a bilateral or multilateral agreement between the US and the relevant importing country. The Basel countries have expressed in writing that they will not negotiate an agreement with a country that has expressed its opposition to receiving such wastes. Also, They are not to negotiate such agreements with countries that don't have stable responsible governments and systems of domestic controls for waste treatment and disposal. This may be a true attempt to "bettering" the global environment, nevertheless, in the long run, only a global ban of waste exports from importing countries to developing ones is representative of a sustainable policy. Although somewhat unrealistic, the management of the wastes would be under better control; but then again we may start with an increased uprise in hidden "traveling wastes", those wastes that are never caught since they continuously are in motion whether in haulers or on ships. The US EPA gives the US environment hope with its new technological tracking systems; this in turn is capable of reducing risks of pollution, disease, contamination, birth defects, and sterilization.

3. Related Cases

KHAIN case
NEW case
BASEL case

Keyword Clusters

(1): Industry = UTILity

(2): Bio-geography = DRY

(3): Environmental Problem = Pollution Sea [POLS]

4. Draft Author:

Diane McMahon

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:

AGReement and COMPlete

6. Forum and Scope:

USA and MULTIlateral

The Basel Convention of 1994 developed under the UN environment program of 1989 addressed the export/import of hazardous wastes, infectious wastes, municipal wastes, and incinerator ash from Mexico into the United States. Clinton's proposal provided for the prosecution of US violators and the monetary recovery of US government costs to enforce the laws. In addition, the bilateral agreement between the US and Mexico (1986) requires the exporting country to provide notifications of intent to export hazardous waste to the importing party 45 days in advance of shipment and the response, either objection or consent also in 45 days. The scope of these agreements represent only the beginning of a series of actions to ultimately improve environmental standards in the border region. If a global agreement is established in the future, all 103 GATT members will be notified and the Convention signers will increase.

7. Decision Breadth:

2 (USA and MEXICO)

8. Legal Standing:


III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: North America

b. Geographic Site: Western North America

c. Geographic Impact: Mexico

The United States and Mexico signed a bilateral agreement in 1986 to establish record keeping techniques to handle the import/export of wastes; nevertheless, the "traveling wastes" (those wastes no source can track down since they are always traveling in motion) are never included in the logs by both sides.

This case study involves the region expanding along the 2,000 mile border between the US and Mexico. The two sides are each working to improve the transport of waste from these "maquiladoras" while domestically focusing on environmental impacts from the treaty.

10. Sub-National Factors:


11. Type of Habitat:


IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure:

Regulatory Standard: LICENsing

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:


The maquiladoras are supposed to be controlled by new regulations; nevertheless, illegal dumping has continued and enforcement authorities are not making productive impacts on the situation.

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: No

b. Indirectly Related to Product: Yes, Manufactures

c. Not Related to Product: No

d. Related to Process: Yes, Pollution Sea

15. Trade Product Identification:


16. Economic Data

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:


18. Industry Sector:


19. Exporters and Importers:


V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type:

Pollution Sea [POLS]

Biodiversity is affected when drinking water is contaminated, disease is commonplace, birthrates are null, and pregnancies are dangerous. Land animals near the contaminated water are killed. Certain species of birds, along with fish and waterlife, are also at risk. Land toxins are placed in dumping grounds along with sludge that contaminate soil, water, agricultural crops, etc.

Contamination of the water supply (New River) along the border is most strained by the process of waste disposal (see NEW case). It carries a hundred toxic chemicals along with hepatitis, polio, cholera, and other diseases. Although $1.2 Million dollars were invested in a sewage plant in that area, nothing has been done to correct the toxic waste flow.

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Name: Many

Type: Many

Diversity: 4,569 higher plants per 10,000 km/sq (Mexico)

Plants, animals, and insects indigenous to the Sonoran Desert of south-western Texas and northern-central Mexico would be affected by the particle emissions. Although the exact number of species is not known, such animals as owls, hawks, deer, javelenas, mountain lions, and assorted reptiles are common to the Big Bend National Park.

22. Resource Impact and Effect:

MEDium and Structural [STRCT]

23. Urgency of Problem:

MEDium and 10-20 years

24. Substitutes:

Biodegradable Products [BIODG]

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture:


26. Trans-Boundary Issues:


27. Rights:


28. Relevant Literature

Carroll, John E. International Environmental Diplomacy Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988

Davis, Bob, "NAFTA May Get A Lift From Pact on Toxic Site", Wall Street Journal, June 15, 1993, p. A2:3.

DeWitt, P.E., "Love Canals in the Making," Time, May 20, 1991

"A Base for the Basel Convention, Environment, June 1994, Vol. 36 No. 5.

Hilz, Christopher, The International Toxic Waste Trade, Van Nostrand Reinhold, NY 1992

Juffer, Jane, "Dump at the Border," Progressive, October 1988, p. 24-29

Moyers, Bill, Global Dumping Ground, Seven Lock Press, Washington 1990.

Pendleton, Scott, "Mexican Sewage Plant Proves to be NAFTA Dream Come True," Christian Science Monitor, July 11, 1994, p. 5.

Rockefeller, John D., "A Warning on Dumping," Washington Post, July 28, 1994, p. A5.

Tomsho, Robert, "EPA Monitors Mexican Border Flow of Wastes," Wall Street Journal, July 30, 1993, p. 1-3, D:3


1. Juffer, Dump at the Border; Progressive Magazine, October 1988, p. 24-29.

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