There is mounting evidence that industrial wastes from the United States are being transported across the Mexican border to be dumped or burned at unregulated sites, according to federal, state and local officials.
In interviews in recent weeks, environmental officials said they suspect shipments have increased as U. S. environmental regulations have tightened, closing hazardous-waste landfills in California and raising the cost of disposal.
Responding to the problem, Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista) on Tuesday called for a halt to all shipments of waste from California to Mexico until there is an overhaul of the state system by which they are tracked.
He and others say the discovery by Mexican officials last month of an illegal dump containing U. S. wastes in the Mexican border town of Tecate may point to a widespread pattern of illicit dumping. They say that Mexico's comparatively lax environmental laws and its largely isolated, 1,900-mile land border with the United States have made it an attractive location for U. S. waste haulers.
Behind U. S. officials' interest in the possibility of increased toxic-waste shipments is a fear of an environmental and public health catastrophe abroad caused by waste from the United States.
"The foreign policy implications of waste export are enormous," said an official in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) international activities office in Washington who asked not to be named. "Major diplomatic incidents can happen if a country, particularly a developing country, wakes up with a lot of waste in its jurisdiction that can't be handled."
Nevertheless, there has been little effort to measure the phenomenon on this side of the border or to explore its consequences on the other side, U. S. officials acknowledge. They say hazardous-waste export is barely regulated and that many of the known shipments are technically legal.
Only in recent months have EPA officials begun writing new regulations to tighten control over waste exports. And, last summer, a task force headed by the U. S. attorney's office in San Diego set up a border roadblock to try to intercept illegal shipments.
Meanwhile, environmental officials from both countries have been meeting in Mexico and the United States, trying to draw up a plan to handle hazardous-waste emergencies that occur along the border and to train U. S. and Mexican customs agents to better recognize toxic wastes.
"The dilemma is that we've got enough problems on this side," said Harry Seraydarian, director of the toxics division of the EPA's regional office in San Francisco. "How much of a priority can we give the Mexicans? That's what it really comes down to."
Regulators as well as businesses that produce and dispose of hazardous wastes say that tightening of regulations on toxic-waste disposal in California has inspired businesses to look elsewhere for cheaper methods of disposal.
In California, only four facilities for certain types of toxics remain open. None are in Southern California, and disposal rates have skyrocketed. The average price of dumping a ton of hazardous wastes in a solid form at Chemical Waste Management's Kettleman Hills site in Kings County has risen from $55 to $95 since 1981, said Steve Drew, a company spokesman. The price of disposing of liquids has gone from 35 cents a gallon to as high as $1.85 a gallon.
"We're desperate," said Don Albin, manager of a tank-truck-cleaning firm in Long Beach that had planned to send waste to the Tecate site until he learned that it was illegal. He described the possibility of cheaper disposal as "just like a life preserver."
Others say waste export is not the answer.
"The solution to our problem here is not shipping hazardous materials to our Mexican neighbors, who may not be as aware of the dangers," said Francis Passarelli, an executive in a waste hauling firm and vice president of the Hazardous Waste Assn. of California, a trade group. "It's just not morally correct."
Exporting toxic wastes is relatively easy under existing federal regulations.
Currently, all a firm need do is notify the EPA in writing at least four weeks before the first shipment to each country in each calendar year. Firms seeking to ship the waste must identify the material and give the name and address of whoever is intended to dispose of it in the foreign country.
The EPA's office of international activities then notifies the foreign country that the waste is coming. There is no requirement that the country receiving the waste give its approval.
Companies are not asked how much waste they intend to ship or how many shipments they might make in a year. Nor does the EPA determine how the waste will be disposed of or whether the disposal facilities meet any environmental standards like those in the United States.