Border center

Nuevo Leon: with permission to contaminate

Por Marco Córdova y Juan Manuel Ramos, Redes Quinto Poder

octubre 29, 2019 | 11:51 pm

This investigation made by Marco Córdova and Juan Manuel Ramos for Redes Quinto Poder IDEA -a member of the Border Hub of Investigative Journalist-, is a project of the International Center For Journalists in partnership with Border Center For Journalist and Bloggers.

In 2006 a new residential and commercial development, considered as one of its kind, opened its doors in Nuevo León. Céntrika, as it was named, was considered one of the most important urban regeneration projects in the history of Monterrey.

Hundreds of families bought homes there in a neighborhood built over buried waste from the then American Smelting Company (Asarco) mining company. Surrounding Centrika, there is a belt of industrial plants such as Magotteaux, a steelmaker; Vitro, a glass manufacturing company, and Cemex, a cement producer, among others. All of them contribute every day with emissions to the smog that covers the Monterrey metropolitan area.

With a surge in the number of vehicles, nearly two million, a large industrial activity, and a lack of inspectors enforcing air pollution control, Monterrey, Nuevo León, is considered one of the metropolitan areas with the highest contamination rates in Latin America.

Specialists say that the government will hardly increase pollution control enforcement of the business sector, as that could put a brake on the state's economic activity. “Those of the Chamber of the Transformation Industry in Nuevo León (Caintra), polluting companies, the municipal secretaries of Urban Development… they are the owners of the ball of when deciding what is authorized and what is not in Nuevo León in regard to environmental standards,” says Guillermo Martínez Berlanga, environmental specialist.

Until a few years ago, the issue of poor air quality in Monterrey was not a problem of concern to this metropolis with a population of more than 4.6 million people, according to the latest Inegi census.

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And while federal, state and municipal authorities decide who will be in charge of enforcing pollution control to the more than five thousand industries that exist in the state, it is a real challenge for the Céntrika resident to live. Every morning cars in Monterrey appear covered with a layer of dust that turns into something as hard as cement when owners try to clean it with water. This layer is a mixture of different industrial pollutants: carbon dioxide, benzene, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and lead, among other metals. Those emissions not only cover cars, but also reach lungs.

In 2016, one year after becoming a Centrika resident,  Salvador Guillen noticed a fast health decline: "The allergies shot me up, I had to be taking antihistamines all the time [...] six months later I completely lost my sense of smell and three months I had a nasal surgery to extract polyps," says Guillén.

The accumulation of various factors played against Salvador. The doctors assured him that one of the causes of these discomforts was the poor quality of the air he was breathing every day. And, according to the latest data from the National Emissions Inventory of Mexico, 63% of PM 2.5 particles are generated by fixed sources of the state such as industrial plants. Just like the big plants located behind the Centrika backyards.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the dangerousness of such particles, suspended in the air as dust, ashes, soot or metallic waste, is their tiny size, so small that they reach the smallest areas of a lung and can even get the blood current and cause cardiovascular problems, explains pneumologist Rodolfo Posadas Valay. 

Céntrika residents say that every morning they find their vehicles with a dust stain.

Without the magnifying glass of inspectors

In Nuevo León there are 5,472 companies that, due to their activity, carry out emissions that could affect the health of Regiomontans. Seven out of ten, that is, 3,739, manufacture metal products, according to the latest Inegi economic census. In contrast, the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (Profepa), an agency responsible for monitoring that the industry complies with environmental standards, has only five inspectors to enforce pollution control of all of them, according to information obtained via transparency requests.

This means that every federal inspector has more than one thousand companies to control. The amount of 14 state inspectors is also limited. This lack of pollution control enforcers has created an over-demand at all levels. 

In addition, there is another factor. Most of these inspections are not placed on the agency's agenda, but instead come after citizens’ complaints.

Inspections take time. "One inspection takes about half a day, so you can do only two complete revisions a day," says Brenda Sánchez, a former federal environmental officer.

The data shows that the government capacities are way far to achieve a real review of these companies. “We were 12 inspectors for the entire state, but we had to handle all environmental matters, forestry, wildlife, even the gray part, which has been the industry,” says Jeremy Zaraj Morales, former inspector coordinator at Semarnat delegation in Nuevo León, between 2006 and 2012. 

But the problem may be beyond the lack of inspectors, since corruption in the state has halted any policy that attempts to reverse the problem. Even with inspectors, there are no ways to determine if pollution verifications were made properly or if they have any real value, says Berlanga. “You can put 100 inspectors, but why do we want them if they don't know what industries can be subject to pollution control enforcement and what others can’t? There will be more corruption than there is, ”he says.

The environmental specialist is radical in this regard: "Governors have been puppets of private industry [...] nobody is willing to resolve the environmental problem because this would mean a confrontation with powerful companies."

Despite the obvious contamination problem in the Monterrey metropolitan area, Profepa has reduced the number of inspectors for the industrial zone in recent years. Based on data obtained via transparency, it was found that in 2012 there were eight industrial inspection employees and currently only here are just five: two biologist pharmaceutical chemists, two industrial engineers and a law graduate. 

In addition, the average number of inspections carried out by Profepa in the last two six years is only between 200 and 400 per year, which represents less than 10% of the industries in the state.

The problem of pollution in Nuevo León

Until a few years ago, the issue of poor air quality in Monterrey was not a problem of concern to this metropolis with a population of more than 4.6 million people, according to the latest Inegi census.

Despite being the third most populated metropolitan area and holding the title of the most important industrial zone in Mexico, Monterrey seemed to be far away to have the Mexico City levels of environmental pollution. But today the reality is different. 

On January 1, 2019, the government activated an environmental contingency alert for the first time after registering a 294 measurement points in particles smaller than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5), according to the Metropolitan Index of Air Quality. And so far this year, the authorities have had to activate the environmental alert four times due to high levels of pollution. 

The debate has taken a different direction and  now authorities blame vehicles as the main source of pollution and promote vehicle emissions verification as a solution to the poor air quality problem.

With a diametrically opposed point of view, environmental groups have emphasized that alerts have been issued on days when the circulation of cars is minimal and that current pollution problems are mostly the responsibility of the pedreras and the industry . 

These environmental alerts recommend that the most vulnerable population, children under  5 and people over 65, limit their outdoor activities as well as reduced activities by industry.

PM2.5 have become the main danger for neoleonenses  “Here we double the maximum Mexican health standard, which is 12 micrograms per cubic meter as an annual average (PM 2.5), we are in the 26 or 25 figure ”, explains Alfonso Martínez, executive director of the Citizen Observatory of Air Quality in Monterrey. 

This has brought serious consequences on Nuevo Leon. In the metropolitan area of ​​Monterrey alone, the record of 1,252 premature deaths per year that could be avoided if the health standard was met in PM2.5, according to data from the National Institute of Public Health. “Air pollution is having acute effects on people's health and acute exposure is causing higher mortality,” says Martínez Muñoz.  

Photos Víctor Hugo Valdivia.

Living among pollutants

The inhabitants of Céntrika daily breathe an air that combines the emissions discarded by Cemex, one of the most important cement producers in the world, and Magotteaux, an international company dedicated to steelmaking, in addition to the waste emitted by Vitro, Crisa Libbey and Owens Illinois.

In 2017 alone, Magotteaux emitted more than 3,373 tons of carbon dioxide into the air and Cemex reported the emission of 51 kilos of lead, according to the Registry of Emissions and Transfer of Pollutants (RETC) of the Semarnat.

All these pollutants can generate health problems to inhabitants in constant exposure to these emissions. “In the short term, a person can develop an asthmatic crisis and not be able to breathe. But over time it can generate periodic crises without allowing complete relief or adequate control of the disease,” says Posadas Valay.

Like its neighbors, Homar Garrido, 56, also suffers from the emissions from these large companies located in the heart of the city.

“We went out and found that strong smell. Is very annoying. It irritates your eyes and throat,” says Garrido, the neighborhood representative of Centrika’s community. Since they began to populate the place, the inhabitants realized that the environment on the site was contaminated, but it was not until 2010 when they got organized to request solutions to the industry.

"The first thing we did was to open a dialogue with these companies, mainly with Cemex and Magotteaux, but we have not seen a decrease in the amount of emission of their pollutants anyway," says Garrido.

This problem was reported to Semarnat and Profepa, but the only response they have obtained from the companies has been the planting of trees and, in some cases, such as Cemex, they put mechanical sweepers to remove the dust that remains in the street. as a result of their activities.

For this report we tried to obtain a response, without success, from Cemex, through its social responsibility department. An attempt was also made to contact the Magotteaux company, equally unsuccessfully.

Although specialists agree that increasing the number of inspectors does not solve the whole issue of pollutants emitted by industries, they also agree that it is a first step towards reducing the problem. This added to an increase in the item that is assigned in the federal, state and municipal budgets to the subject.

“Inspection is not like bringing a corrective in your hand. The ideal is that if the government generates authorizations, they must be fulfilled. For example, in the case of pedreras they say 'we don't have resources to move', can they not generate less dust little by little? That is in the authorizations, there would be no need to inspect and review them if they were subject to the conditions of the authorizations, ”says Brenda Sánchez.

Read the story behind the story of this investigation


Marco Córdova y Juan Manuel Ramos, Redes Quinto Poder


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