Mexican Power Plants Avoid U.S. Regulations

By Cat Lazaroff

SAN DIEGO, California, March 20, 2002 (ENS) - Two planned power plants are stirring controversy along the U.S.-Mexico border in southern California. Conservation groups have filed suit against the U.S. government challenging permits granted to utilities for electrical transmission lines that would carry power from the electrical generation plants being built three miles inside of Mexico to homes and businesses in the United States.

Earthjustice and Wild Earth Advocates, representing the Border Power Plant Working Group, say the planned power plants would be sited in Baja California, Mexico to avoid the restrictions of U.S. environmental laws. Their lawsuit, filed Tuesday, comes as President George W. Bush attends the United Nations (UN) Conference on Financing for Development in Mexico to discuss world poverty.


The planned power plants would transmit electricity across the border from Mexico to serve U.S. customers. (Photo courtesy James Pick, University of Redlands)
"Approving transmission lines for power plants under construction in Mexicali, without ensuring that these plants are built to minimize air and water quality impacts, will cause unnecessary harm to nearby U.S. and Mexican communities," said Bill Powers of the Border Power Plant Working Group.

The lawsuit seeks to require environmental impact statements prior to the issuance of federal permits needed for the transmission lines to cross international boundaries. Operation of the plants would degrade U.S. air and water quality and would likely harm public health and the environment in the border region of Imperial Valley, California and Mexicali, Mexico, the plaintiffs charge.

One of the stated goals of the current administration's energy plan is "to expand and accelerate cross border energy investment, oil and gas pipelines, and electricity grid connections by streamlining and expediting permitting procedures with Mexico and Canada."

"Now we see that what the administration meant by 'expediting' power plant construction was actually a strategy to avoid U.S. laws that mandate environmental review and public participation," said Martin Wagner, attorney for Earthjustice. "Exporting our pollution into this region of Mexico is disturbingly cynical considering the President's attendance at the UN meeting on international poverty in Mexico this week."

Operation of the plants would also generate substantial air pollution that would cause further deterioration of air quality in California's Salton Sea Air Basin, a region that is already unable to comply with the air quality requirements of the Clean Air Act (EPA and several state agencies have stated that this non-compliance is due in part to pollution from Mexico).

Salton Sea

The power plants would send salty water into the Salton Sea, shown in black in this satellite image. The red areas are irrigated fields in the Imperial Valley. Mexicali, Mexico, site of the planned power plants, is in the lower portion of the photo. (Landsat photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
The border power plants would also discharge salty wastewater into the New River, which flows north across the U.S. border and discharges into the Salton Sea. Both these water bodies already fail to meet the water quality standards of the Clean Water Act, and contribute to the principal problem facing the Salton Sea - high salinity.

Operation of the proposed border power plants would threaten the Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge, a key habitat for birds in the Imperial Valley, the conservation group charges.

Much of the air and water pollution will result from the cooling systems the plants will use. Although Mexico is a world leader in the use of cleaner, dry cooling systems, the U.S, developers of the border plants have proposed to use wet cooling systems that emit much more particulate matter into the air and greater concentrations of contaminants into the water.

If the same power plants were constructed in Imperial County, California, they would be required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use dry cooling to eliminate particulate emissions.

"The Department of Energy (DOE) did an environmental assessment before issuing the permits to build the transmission lines but their study ignored the impacts of the power plants even after the EPA advised them to include such consideration," said Julia Olson, an attorney with Wild Earth Advocates. "Not surprisingly, DOE concluded that the plants would have no significant environmental impact and granted the permits."


This satellite image shows the U.S.-Mexico border bisecting the Imperial Valley, with Mexicali, Mexico visible as the brown area south of the border. (Landsat photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
The lawsuit filed Tuesday challenges the permits and the associated environmental assessment for the transmission lines. It questions the DOE's failure to prepare an environmental impact statement and to evaluate the combined environmental impacts from the transmission lines, the pipeline being constructed to provide fuel to the plants, and the operation of the plants themselves.

The suit alleges that the National Environmental Policy Act requires that these connected actions be assessed jointly. The suit also challenges the failure to consider alternatives to this action, such as granting a conditional permit for the transmission lines linked to a commitment that the power plants will comply with U.S. environmental standards and use best available technologies.

This suit would establish a precedent applicable to future border power plants, both in Mexico and Canada, that may be built to provide energy for U.S. markets. The legal challenge will provide an incentive for the U.S. and Mexican governments to collaborate to establish air quality standards and measures to reduce pollution in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

Such initiatives are under way, but are not considered a high priority for either government. More information on the lawsuit is available at: