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Dirty Air, North and South

June 29, 2002

Mainly because so much smoke and soot blows across the border from Mexicali, Mexico, California's Imperial County violates national air quality standards an average of one day in three. That means more kids wheeze with asthma, more adults die of heart disease. And the pall will get worse as corporations scramble to erect 16 new power plants on both sides of the United States' 1,500-mile border with Mexico--including two plants adjacent to the Imperial Valley's farms and towns.

No one disputes that the growing populations on both sides of the border will require more energy. With that in mind, President Bush in December approved permits for cross-border power transmission lines from two natural-gas-fired plants being built in Baja California to connect to a grid that can supply electricity anywhere between Mexico City and the Pacific Northwest.

The problem is that only one of the two companies building these plants near Mexicali is showing concern for the environment and public health.

Sempra Energy Resources' plant will be almost as clean-burning as any standard-meeting plant constructed on U.S. soil, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. InterGen Energy's plant is a different story. This plant will generate 1,065 megawatts, enough electricity for 1.5 million households. The energy from two of the plant's four turbines will go to Mexico, the rest to the U.S. The turbines whose electricity will head north will have add-on emissions control devices--but even with those the facilities will be about twice as polluting as the average California plant. The other two will emit about 10 times more nitrogen oxides than California permits. After Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked the Massachusetts-based InterGen to voluntarily comply with U.S. air quality standards, the company responded by saying their plant would meet Mexican standards. Because those standards are far less stringent than California's, Feinstein has introduced a bill in Congress, co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), that would prohibit natural gas produced in the United States from being used in power plants in Baja California unless the plants complied with California emissions standards.

Politicians and business leaders are right to tout the benefits of globalization, which lets capital and energy flow more freely across national borders. Too often, however, they conveniently forget a simple correlate: Air too crosses boundaries. Responsible corporate citizens do their best to protect public health and safeguard the environment regardless of which way the wind blows.

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