Binational committee creates fund to monitor air quality in El Paso, Juarez, New Mexico
A binational committee on air quality created a new fund Thursday to pay for long-term monitoring of air pollution in the Borderland.
Air quality in the region has declined sharply in recent years as monitoring capacity has deteriorated and binational cooperation on the issue never fully recovered from the years of extreme, drug-related violence in Juárez.
If fundraising is successful, the committee hopes the fund — designed to be supported by both government and business — will cover the $100,000 annual cost of running three air quality monitors on the Mexican side, as well as pay for system upgrades.
Enhancing air monitoring capacity on the south side of the border will allow researchers to more accurately pinpoint sources of pollution and propose solutions, Eddie Moderow, a border affairs specialist with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said.
"There are solutions galore," Moderow said. "We just need to work together. And it starts with good air quality monitoring. You do a little bit of investment and you see improvements."
'Real impact on development'
The Binational Air Monitoring fund will be managed by the North American Development Bank, which facilitates financing, construction, operation and maintenance of environmental infrastructure projects in the border region.
The bank and TCEQ will create the fund, and the joint advisory committee will govern how funds are spent. Moderow said the committee aims to recruit partners in the private sector, as well.
Businesses have a stake in regional air quality, he said.
Pollution has increased to the point that "El Paso is facing the potential of reaching non-attainment status in future years," Moderow said, explaining the designation that is reserved for localities that routinely fail to meet Texas air quality standards. "That has real impact on development. We have an opportunity now to make course corrections."
"The Binational Air Monitoring Fund represents an extraordinary opportunity for industry leaders and local businesses to invest in their communities by removing longstanding barriers to development," TCEQ Commissioner Bobby Janecka said in an Op-Ed published by the El Paso Times.
The committee — formally known as the "Joint Advisory Committee for the Improvement of Air Quality in the Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua / El Paso, Texas / Doña Ana County, New Mexico Air Basin" — is scheduled to vote today to establish the fund during a virtual meeting.
'We can't block the air'
U.S. and Mexican environmental agencies rely on a network of 17 air quality monitors in the region to gather information on the shared airshed, Moderow said. There are 11 monitors in El Paso, three in Juárez and three in Doña Ana County.
TCEQ and the city of El Paso share responsibility for operating the city's monitors. TCEQ, then the city of El Paso, operated the Juárez monitors until the drug war consumed the city with violence and El Paso city operators stopped going over.
"It went downhill from there," Moderow said.
Historically, Chihuahua state and the city of Juárez haven't been able to fund the air quality monitors nor ensure their continuous operation and maintenance.
"TCEQ monitors our half of the border," he said. "The other half of the border is in the dark. They have done a lot, but it requires a real binational effort."
Yet the airshed cannot be divided.
Known sources of particulate matter and ozone — major problems in El Paso, according to Moderow — are connected to transportation the binational maquiladora industry that forms a joint cornerstone of the El Paso and Juárez economies.
There are fewer emissions regulations on the Mexican side. Old tractor-trailers that move products between warehouses and assembly plants spew exhaust that contributes to air pollution. So do the rutas, or re-purposed school buses, that carry personnel to and from the factories in Juárez.
Trucks idling at U.S. ports of entry, waiting for U.S. inspections, also contribute.
"Each side is potentially degrading the air we share," Joe Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, said. "We can’t segment it with a wall. We can’t block the air going back and forth."
Air pollution degrades health, makes COVID more deadly
Research shows that air pollution can be deadly.
In a study published this week in the journal Environmental Research, Harvard scientists estimate that exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 18% of total global deaths in 2018 — roughly one in five deaths.
More than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, according to the study's estimates.
In pandemic-stricken areas, exposure to air pollution may be especially deadly.
People with COVID-19 who live in U.S. regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less polluted areas, according to a preliminary study produced by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in May last year.
The study, which emerged early in the pandemic and hadn't been peer-reviewed, examined the link between long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution —stemming from the fuel combustion of vehicles, refineries and power plants — and the risk of death from COVID-19 in the U.S.
"Air pollution really, really, negatively impacts our health and way of life," Heyman said.
El Paso and Juárez "have a shared environmental issue," he said.
Lauren Villagran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.