Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal


Amelia Simpson


This Article explores the legacy of the U.S. environmental justice movement for the U.S.-Mexico border region. Part I introduces the case of Metales y Derivados, an abandoned, U.S.-owned maquiladora factory in Tijuana, Mexico, and the community’s struggle to compel cleanup of toxic waste at the site. In the context of environmental justice, Metales y Derivados illustrates a complex intersection of histories and cultures, international trade policy, and movement building. Part II discusses how racism, a defining element of the environmental justice movement, is often minimized and even denied in Latin America, despite studies documenting its persistence. Part III examines obstacles to building environmental justice cases in Mexico comparable to ones in the U.S., including differences in assigning racial identity, the dissimilarity of land use patterns, and fewer resources for documentation. Yet the concept of environmental justice can be developed clearly in the context of the free trade regime, exemplified by NAFTA, that perpetuates a long history of racism toward Mexico in policies that permit the exploitation of Mexican border communities for profit. Part IV A presents the background of the Metales y Derivados case and its links to NAFTA. Part IV B details the community’s struggle to clean up the Metales y Derivados toxic site, including the 1998 filing of a Citizen Submission with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an institution formed to fulfill the environmental provisions of NAFTA. The Citizen Submission culminated in the publication in 2002 of a report documenting the risk to human health that toxics at the Metales y Derivados site represented. However, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation had no enforcement mechanism to compel remediation. The Environmental Health Coalition and its community action team in Tijuana persisted in its crossborder organizing and advocacy campaign and achieved a historic victory when the Mexican government signed a landmark agreement in 2004 with community residents for cleanup within five years. Part V describes the importance of the Metales y Derivados case for policy and community activism across borders, as well as its status as the poster child for the failure of NAFTA as a model for protecting public health and the environment. The environmental justice movement will be strengthened as it meets the challenge of expanding to address international issues and global concerns.