HAZ WASTE WILL TRAVEL
They steal across the border in broad daylight, bound for Texas and points beyond. Wherever these border-crossers end up, they plan on staying for a long, long time. Although they are dangerous and possibly sin papeles, even the Minutemen, those infamous border vigilantes, are ignoring them. These Mexican invaders aren’t people, but shipments of hazardous waste. And they flow into the United States with increasingly lax oversight from the federal and state government.
Under an environmental agreement signed during the Reagan administration and reinforced by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S. must accept waste generated at Mexican maquiladoras for disposal here—111,000 tons in 2002. Much of the hazardous waste—benzene and the pesticide heptachlor, for example—ends up in landfills near the border, such as a BFI facility near Harlingen. Thousands of tons are also trucked out of state to far-flung sites in South Carolina, Minnesota, and other states.
The government’s weak system for monitoring and inspecting these truckloads of waste has become even more threadbare the past two years. In 2003, the Bush EPA eliminated HAZTRAKS, the only national database for tracking waste from “cradle to grave.” The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) used the system to make sure the waste was sent where it was supposed to go and to take action against companies not following the rules. Eliminating HAZTRAKS has left “the U.S. with no specific plan to track hazardous wastes imported from Mexico,” wrote the authors of a 2004 report by the Texas Center for Policy Studies, which examined gaps in the regulation of hazardous waste shipments.
In a double whammy, the Department of Homeland Security has booted environmental inspectors off ports of entry such as Brownsville and Laredo, citing homeland security concerns. That’s left U.S. Customs employees inspecting trucks transporting hazardous materials rather than TCEQ experts. “Our guys are basically focused full time on hazardous and solid waste; that’s what they do for a living,” said Steve Niemeyer, a policy analyst with the TCEQ. “It just makes sense that our folks would have more expertise.” TCEQ inspected 9,600 trucks in 2003, the last year such inspections were done by the agency. Now, TCEQ has little idea of how many trucks transporting hazardous materials cross the border.
The prospect that poisonous chemicals may be slipping through the border and ending up in vast illegal dumping grounds prompted state Rep. Norma Chavez (D-El Paso) to file a bill during the 2005 legislative session to put TCEQ inspectors back on the border. “Where NAFTA may have some benefits it shouldn’t be at the expense of the environment along the Texas-Mexico border,” said Chavez. “When you’re not inspecting and you’re not tracking where the hazardous waste is going, we’re asking for trouble down the road.” Chavez’s bill died in the House Committee on Environmental Regulation.
Meanwhile, the Minutemen are patrolling the Texas-Mexico border, looking for “illegals” and chastising the government for not doing its job. It seems it will take Eco-men and women to deal with the hazardous waste problem. Chris Simcox, President of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, said through a spokesperson, “It’s not something the Minutemen are focused on right now in that their focus is on the illegal crossings … As a general comment, [Simcox] hopes that the federal government is doing their job to protect the American people.”
“The biggest change in my life,” Bill Moyers said at a recent Observer event, “is that the delusional is no longer marginal.” When it comes to the current immigration debate in Texas, that may be only partly true. In addition to your garden-variety senators and congressmen with crazy ideas, the subject of what to do about illegal immigration has attracted Texans that have a long way to travel before they leave marginal territory.
Many of the more strident and paranoid were on display on the south steps of the state Capitol on October 1 for a pro-Minutemen rally. In addition to the Texas chapter of the Minutemen, the Young Conservatives of Texas, U.S. Border Watch, and Save Our Taxpayers swelled the crowd to about 40 demonstrators. To add to the fun, there were about 20 counter-demonstrators drawn from Anti-Racist Action, the International Socialist Organization, the Texas Civil Rights Project, and the ACLU. It was hard to tell who was who in the beginning, but as the rally began, everyone moved to his or her side. A phalanx of more than a dozen policemen separated the two.
In the pro-Minutemen crowd stood a woman who reluctantly identified herself as “The Bat Lady.” She wore a matching black cape, mask, and boots and held aloft a sign that read “Got Leprosy?” When queried about the sign, she shoved a crumpled piece of paper into a reporter’s hand. “There. There is my quote,” she said.
It read: “There are laws to come into this country legally. They must get a FBI background check and a full medical check. The U.S. doesn’t have to let in those with TB, AIDS, or leprosy, or criminals and terrorists. All we ask is the U.S. government enforce its own laws.”
The tone for the rally was set when the opening prayer was sidelined by a robust counter-chant of “racist, sexist, anti-gay, right-wing bigots go away.” This prompted a chant in response of “USA, USA, God bless the USA.” During the day several punches were thrown and at least one demonstrator was asked to leave by the police.
Judy Morris, a demonstrator at the event, walked by and nodded at the row of counter-demonstrators forming behind her, some of them shouting “racist pigs.” “These people are no different than the Muslims who are hacking off heads,” Morris said. “I’ve seen these people before. Most of them are hardcore communists.”
At the podium, Steve Mason, a representative of Texas Minutemen, shouted and pointed fingers at the row of counter-demonstrators. “The International Socialist Organization, Anti-Racist Action, Texas Civil Rights Project… these people who claim to be peaceniks are really violent, vicious people.” He roared into the microphone, “Keep an eye on these people!”
Jason Netek of the International Socialist Organization said his group couldn’t hear any of the pro-Minutemen speeches over their own chanting. “We don’t need to hear their arguments,” he said.
But the Minutemen’s basic point that there is an illegal immigration crisis is gaining currency in Washington, D.C. Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison has filed legislation that would authorize the border patrol to deputize volunteer ex-lawmen as an official Minutemen-like militia, and 83 Republicans in the U.S. House signed a letter to President Bush in early October demanding that he back off a guest worker proposal and instead focus on border enforcement.