The Endangered Rio Grande
In April of this year, the national conservation group American Rivers ranked the Rio Grande as the seventh most endangered river in the United States. (1) Rapid growth, fueled by North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is threatening the river, the sole source of drinking water for the people of Laredo and many other communities along the border. Resulting problems include the over pumping of water and polluted run-off, along with the fact that cities on Mexican side of the border are discharging millions of gallons of raw sewage into the river each day. And while the dumping of raw sewage in the river is a very serious problem, recent studies point to another source of toxic chemical pollution.
Chemicals from Warehouses
In January 2000, Dr. Jim Earhart, of the Rio Grande International Study Center, spoke before the Texas State Senate Special Committee on Border Affairs. He reported that a 1997 Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) study leads to the conclusion that pollutants from a warehouse district in Northwest Laredo making their way into the river, especially from Manadas Creek. Dr. Earhart reported that "These toxic chemicals... are coming primarily from Laredo," saying that unregulated warehouses built along the banks of creeks that feed into the Rio Grande are the principal threat to water quality."(2)
According to the TNRCC, there are over 1200 warehouses in the Laredo area, many of which have been built near tributaries without protection for spills or other safeguards. Last October, Laredo City officials discovered a "mountain of sludge, concrete, plastic bags, old tires, used sofas and empty industrial containers next to a channel running into the river." (3) Included in the rubble were 75 empty containers of muriatic acid, a chemical used to clean air conditioners and toilets that can be harmful if inhaled.
Toxic Fish in the Rio Grande
In 1994, the Mexican and United States Governments completed the first phase of the Binational Study Regarding the Presence of Toxic Substances in the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo and Its Tributaries Along the Boundary Between the United States and Mexico. The EPA funded Phase two of the study was completed in 1997. Results from the study showed increases in chemical pollution in the river, prompting the EPA and TNRCC to identify Laredo as a pollution trouble spot.
The EPA reported in their Rio Grande Toxic Substances Study - Questions and Answers , that the study found that "edible fish tissue requirements were exceeded for arsenic, mercury, chlordane and [DDE]."(4)
An analysis by Dr. Earhart of the EPA study found that "of the thirty toxic chemicals found to exceed various governmental screening levels between El Paso and Brownsville, nineteen were in the [Laredo] area." (5) His analysis of fish tissue studies found that "Twelve toxic chemicals were found to exceed screening levels in fish tissue.... Seven of those were found in the [Laredo] area." (5) Chemicals found during the study include arsenic, chloride, copper, lead, zinc, selenium, and cadmium.
Dr. Earhart revealed that the EPA analysis showed that "arsenic levels in a fillet of bass were 11.1 times the Environmental Protection Agency's edible tissue criterion near the Jefferson Street Water Treatment Plant--the sole source of Laredo's drinking water."(5) Levels of copper, zinc, and mercury in carp and bass near the drinking water intake were also dangerously high according to safety levels set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In response to whether the studies raise, "... any potential human health concerns?" the EPA replied in their Toxic Substances Study - Questions and Answers that, "... For now, we can't really say whether it's safe to eat the fish in the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Laredo/Nuevo Laredo vicinity, but the US Food and Drug Administration does recommend that pregnant women not eat fish more than once a month.(4)
Years Later - TNRCC Inaction
Three years after studies exposed the high levels of toxic contamination; the TNRCC has yet to determine whether to issue an advisory on eating fish caught in the Laredo area.
TNRCC has also failed to strengthen the regulation and inspection of the warehouses along the creeks emptying into the Rio Grande that many believe are the major source of the toxic contamination.
Dr. Earhart and others are convinced that neither the city nor the TNRCC commissioners, appointed by Governor George Bush, are doing enough to address the pollution in the Rio Grande. "I'm afraid that there's just not enough enforcement by the TNRCC."(6) Tom Bond, president of the Rio Grande International Study Center said, " I used to think that we had the EPA, ... and the TNRCC, we had people who were looking after the river and the environment in general, and [I] eventually came to the realization that wasn't necessarily the case."(7)
Border Communities in Jeopardy
Now, Laredo city officials are proposing spending $60 million to build an additional water source for the community. And while city officials say the new water source would only be a backup in case of disaster, others like Dr. Earhart fear the move signals a willingness to avoid responsibility to clean up the Rio Grande.
Dr. Earhart, in his analysis of the bi-national study of toxics in the Rio Grande said, "... Unless conscious actions are taken by individual citizens, industry, and government, the future of our community, and other communities which depend upon the Rio Grande for their water supply, is in jeopardy."(5)
Join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.
- "Rio Grande No. 7 on List of Endangered Rivers" Laredo Morning Times, April
12, 2000, by Laura Ridder-Flynn
- "Laredo Water is Toxic" San Antonio Express-News, January 12, 2000, by Russell Gold
- "Dirty War Continues---Illegal Dumpsite Found at Riverside" Laredo Morning Times, October 14, 1999, by Cadence Mertz
- EPA Region 6, Toxic Substances Study - Questions and Answers, Binational Study Regarding the Presence of Toxic Substances in the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo and Its Tributaries Along the Boundary Between the United States and Mexico
- A Summary of the Binational Study Regarding the Presence of Toxic Substances in the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo and Its Tributaries Along the Boundary Between the United States and Mexico, Dr. Jim Earhart
- Interview with Dr, Jim Earhart, January, 2000
- Interview with Tom Bond, January, 2000