The U.S.-Mexico border is located in a region that is characterized by little rainfall and extreme temperatures - the border between the states of Arizona and Sonora receives only 3.1 inches of rainfall per year and experiences maximum temperatures of 113°F (IPCC, 2001). Despite its natural constraints, the border region has experienced rapid population growth and industrialization, particularly in the last ten years. The economic opportunities brought by the North American Free Trade Agreement - signed in 1994 - also carry their share of costs, many of which are paid by environmental degradation and human ill-health. Additionally, poverty and lack of infrastructure are endemic to both sides of the border; in the US, the border transects nine of the poorest counties in the nation (Schmidt, 2000). All these factors contribute to the environmental health burden experienced by many border residents. (For a more information, please see the "Background" page of Border 2012.)
Response to Border Environmental Health Problems
Because environmental contamination spreads with respect to physical, not political, boundaries, cooperation between the United States and Mexico and the respective states is essential. Nevertheless, such cooperation can be challenging due to differences in language, laws, political structures, and regulatory frameworks. Border 2012 is the most recent effort on the part of the U.S.E.P.A. and its Mexican counterpart, SEMARNAT (Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources), and their many U.S. and Mexican partners to address border environmental health problems in an effective manner.
Origins of Border 2012
In 1983, the Federal governments of the U.S. and Mexico signed the La Paz Agreement for the protection, improvement and conservation of the environment on the U.S.-Mexico border. In the agreement, the border region was defined as the area within 100 km (about 62.5 miles) on either side of the border separating the two countries. Nine years later, the environmental authorities of both countries released the Integrated Border Environmental Plan (IBEP). This plan carried out its activities through six workgroups identified within the La Paz Agreement to deal with environmental issues: Air, Water, Hazardous and Solid Wastes, Pollution Prevention, Contingency Planning and Emergency Response, and Enforcement. However, the implementation of the IBEP was criticized for its lack of public involvement in its development and its inadequate attention to natural resources and environmental health issues. These perceived shortcomings led to the next phase of binational cooperation, the Border XXI Program. Officially announced in December 1996, the new program was founded on the principles of ensuring public involvement, decentralization, and interagency cooperation. It also added three new workgroups to the original six identified under the La Paz agreement: Environmental Health, Natural Resources, and Environmental Information Resources.
As the year 2000 approached and the Border XXI Program ended, the EPA and SEMARNAT assessed the results and format of Border XXI, to see if they were using the most effective means of cooperation. Through a series of meetings and community forums with the state and federal partners from both countries, the U.S. tribal governments, and community stakeholders, a new strategic list of goals was formulated which officially became Border 2012 in 2002. Instead of following the format of nine issue-based workgroups, Border 2012 created four regionally-based workgroups that would involve the participation of all stakeholders: the regional offices of the EPA and SEMARNAT, community members, local governmental agencies, and the U.S. tribes. Additionally, Border 2012 implemented three binational workgroups that addressed problems that were ubiquitous along the border: Environmental Health, Emergency Preparedness and Response, and Cooperative Enforcement and Compliance.
Origins of the Environmental Health Work Group
In response to a cluster of neural tube defects identified in 1991 in Cameron County, Texas, the EPA established the Interagency Coordinating Committee (ICC) in 1995 to better coordinate with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. By working with PanAmerican Health Organization (PAHO) representatives and representatives from Mexico's Secretary of Health (SALUD) and Secretary of Environment, Natural Resources, and Fish (SEMARNAP), the ICC later became the lead workgroup trans-border environmental health problems.
Rather than create a new entity for the Border XXI Environmental Health Workgroup (EHWG), the ICC was incorporated into Border XXI to represent the U.S. position for environmental health issues. The EHWG became an avenue for which members of the ICC, SALUD, and SEMARNAP (Secretary of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Fish - predecessor to SEMARNAT) could pursue environmental health issues in a binational forum.