Listen to Austin 360 Radio

'No one ... can resolve this on their own': Improving air quality in El Paso-Juárez a bi-national effort

Martha Pskowski
El Paso Times

On cool fall and winter mornings in the Borderland, a grey miasma often settles over Juárez and El Paso. In the peak of summer, smog sinks between the Franklin Mountains and the Sierra de Juárez, creating a thick haze in the shared air basin.

Air pollution is a persistent problem in the metropolitan area, which encompasses two countries, three states, a Native American tribe and an estimated 2.7 million people.

In its 2021 air pollution report, the American Lung Association ranked El Paso-Las Cruces as the 13th worst metropolitan area in the country for ozone pollution and gave the region an "F" grade for its frequency of high ozone days.

From one side of the border to the other, the tools to improve air quality are vastly unequal. The City of El Paso measures ozone (smog) and particulate matter (PM) — pollution from tailpipes or blowing dust — at five automatic monitoring stations. The city continuously sends publicly-accessible data to state environmental authorities.

In Juárez, municipal technicians program semi-automatic stations to measure particulate pollution every six days. Only ozone is monitored automatically, with equipment funded by Texas. If particulate pollution is bad on a Monday, data may not be available until the weekend.

German Perez, an air quality technician with the Ciudad Juárez Environmental Department, stands below an air quality monitoring station in central Ciudad Juárez. The monitoring equipment is outmoded.

"The city needs to move fast into newer technology," said Felipe Adrián Vázquez, Director of the Climatology and Air Quality Laboratory at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez (UACJ). "Technology that allows the city to know the levels of pollution in real time."

This inequity in monitoring capacity is just one of the challenges to Borderland air quality. For decades, officials in the U.S. and Mexico have worked together to address dangerous levels of air pollution. But stubborn obstacles have hindered progress and penalties are on the horizon.

More:El Paso had 126 elevated air pollution days in 2020

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may soon designate El Paso County in "nonattainment" for ozone, which would impact economic development, permitting and road planning. Officials in El Paso, Austin and Juárez said collaboration is the solution to this shared problem. But working together is easier said than done.

More smog on the horizon

Bad air quality air can be seen over Ciudad Juarez and El Paso on Sunday Nov. 7, 2021 from El Camino Real in Ciudad Juarez.

In May 2021, the EPA notified Texas it would reclassify El Paso County as "nonattainment" for ozone, based on the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Under the Clean Air Act, counties must stay within maximum air pollution levels. The EPA ozone standard is 70 parts per billion, calculated by the three year average of the annual fourth-highest daily maximum ozone level.

The EPA argued emissions from El Paso were driving high ozone levels in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Texas was given two months to challenge the designation.

"For most days, the impact from Texas is more significant than the impact from sources within New Mexico," said Stephanie Stringer, New Mexico Environmental Department Deputy Cabinet Secretary. 

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) shot back in a letter on July 26: "The significant emissions contribution to the proposed El Paso-Las Cruces ozone nonattainment area’s airshed comes from Juarez, Mexico." TCEQ included meteorological and topographic evidence that emissions from Juárez, not solely El Paso County, were driving high ozone levels.

From left, Al Melero, City of El Paso’s Air Quality Enforcement Supervisor and Karl Rimkus, Air Quality Program Manager are photographed at an air quality monitoring station in El Paso, Texas.

The EPA letter came after years of steady progress. Texas implemented its first ozone action plan for El Paso in 1979 to bring the city into attainment. The plan was revised in the mid-1990s. In 2004, the EPA designated El Paso County attainment for ozone, but maintenance actions continued.

More:Proposed El Paso ozone pollution nonattainment label may affect El Paso Electric power plant plan

"No one jurisdiction can resolve this on their own," said TCEQ U.S. Mexico Border Affairs Manager Eddie Moderow. 

"I'd like to challenge EPA to come with more of a binational perspective," said Moderow. "and create a binational regime where we can talk about air quality, even more than we have already."

EPA Region 6, which includes El Paso, spokesperson Jennah Durant, said that the ozone decision is forthcoming and that the agency "does not believe the Clean Air Act provides for consideration of international emissions in making designation decisions." EPA Region 6 said they collaborate with Mexican officials and that "Air quality continues to be a priority for both nations."

Ricardo Macias, technician for the city of El Paso’s Air Quality Program, changes a filter at an air quality monitoring station along the U.S./Mexico border in El Paso, Texas.

The nonattainment status would require both New Mexico and Texas to implement State Implementation Plan (SIP) to get back to attainment.

"New Mexico has submitted its nonattainment SIP to EPA and looks forward to collaborating with Texas to develop their SIP," said Stringer.

Texas officials are working to understand why ozone levels are increasing. Their key claim — that air pollution in Juárez was impacting El Paso and Doña Ana County —is hard to prove without data. And data on air quality in Juárez has been sorely lacking.

More:Sierra Club, Chaparral group to fight El Paso Electric power plant project in state hearing

Juárez lacks capacity to reign in air pollution

In El Paso, state and federal money funds air quality monitoring. Across the border, Juárez relies on municipal coffers and has struggled to buy and maintain air quality monitoring equipment.

Juárez Environmental Regulatory Director César Díaz said his office needs support to reign in air pollution. "A lot of the time, there isn't that much pressure to address environmental questions," he said.

Dr. Felipe Adrián Vázquez of the Climatology and Air Quality Laboratory at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez explains the challenges Ciudad Juarez faces when monitoring pollutants.

At a vehicle emissions testing station near the Bridge of the Americas, city technicians verify emissions of buses that transport maquila workers. The buses' diesel engines contribute to PM 2.5, the smallest particulate matter that is especially potent.

After years of transporting U.S. schoolchildren, these buses now transport workers from their homes to their jobs at a Juárez maquila. When U.S. school districts retire their buses, they are often sold and exported to Mexico for a second life.

More:Wildfire smoke, smog cause hazy and potentially hazardous conditions in El Paso this week

Díaz said most buses transporting maquila workers have passed emissions testing. But he said that of the approximately 4,000 ruteros, old school buses that provide cheap transport for the general public in Juárez, few have been inspected.

"We don't have any support from the state or federal government, the city is probably alone on this matter," said UACJ's Vázquez. 

German Perez, with Ciudad Juárez Environmental Department runs a test on a diesel bus used to transport maquiladora personnel in Ciudad Juárez in early November 2021.

"Juárez is trying to carry all of this on their back," TCEQ's Moderow said. "You cannot expect Juárez to carry the full force of an air quality monitoring program."

New state and municipal authorities recently took office in Chihuahua. Díaz said since taking office he has restarted vehicle verification activities that lapsed during the pandemic. Chihuahua's Secretary of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE), Gabriel Valdez Juárez, said he has met with key stakeholders from both the U.S. and Mexico in the air basin. 

"We are aware the levels of air pollution have spiked," he said. "The Chihuahua state government is committed to participating and contributing to improve air quality in the binational air basin."

Valdez, who took office in September, said that in the 2022 budget the state intends to fund additional air quality monitoring stations in Juárez.

Acceptable levels of ozone and PM in Mexico are set by the Secretariat for Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and, by law, are enforced by the federal environmental prosecutor, PROFEPA. Mexican law sets acceptable ozone levels at up to 70 parts per billion (ppm) for an eight hour average.

Collaboration key in making progress on air quality

As the Borderland industrialized in the 1970s and 1980s, air quality concerned public officials. The U.S and Mexico formed the Joint Advisory Committee for the Improvement of Air Quality, also known as the JAC, in 1996 to develop air quality improvement initiatives.

The JAC operates under the La Paz agreement, signed in 1983, which governs environmental cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico. Its members are government officials, university officials and non-governmental organizations.

Vehicle Emissions and Air Quality Department Head Ricardo Aragon Urciaga and technician German Perez check a filter on an air quality monitor in Ciudad Juárez in early November 2021.

Laura Uribarri, a Borderlands History PhD candidate at UTEP, researches the history of binational air quality collaboration in El Paso-Juárez. She said progress on air quality occurs when officials in both countries work in close cooperation.

"If we truly behave as an international air basin, it doesn't matter where the emissions reduction happens, because the benefit is for everyone," she said.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, officials took creative approaches to reducing emissions, like building clean-burning brick kilns in Juárez to offset emissions in El Paso. 

More:Binational committee creates fund to monitor air quality in El Paso, Juarez, New Mexico

The EPA and TCEQ have funded air quality monitoring in Juárez to help fill the gap in data. U.S. technicians operated equipment in Juárez until violent crime rose in the early 2010s. In 2014, technicians from El Paso stopped going to Juárez to maintain and operate the air quality monitoring equipment. Equipment fell into disrepair and parts were stolen. 

Rekindling that spirit of cooperation, the JAC created the Binational Air Quality Fund earlier this year. Held at the North American Development Bank, the Fund will finance air monitoring equipment, including the three ozone monitors in Juárez, and contracts to support operations and maintenance. 

Urban growth presents environmental challenges for region

In the quarter century that the Joint Advisory Committee has existed, the challenges facing Mexican and U.S. officials have transformed. As El Paso-Juárez emerged as a crucial hub in the North American economy, increased truck traffic, a growing maquila industry and border infrastructure all contributed to air pollution.

Commercial traffic lines up on the Puente Libre as trucks enter with goods to the U.S. Movement of goods over the border has soared since NAFTA. In 1996, 556,000 commercial trucks crossed from Juárez into El Paso. In 2019, before the pandemic slowdown, 792,441 commercial trucks crossed, a 42% increase.

In 1996, the population of Juárez was just over one million. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had gone into effect two years earlier. Today, Juárez is home to more than 1.5 million people. The City of El Paso has also grown, though more modestly.

Movement of goods over the border soared. In 1996, 556,000 commercial trucks crossed from Juárez into El Paso. In 2019, before the pandemic slowdown, 792,441 commercial trucks crossed, a 42% increase.

More:Sunland Park argues in lawsuit against EPA that El Paso's ozone levels are unsafe

"We carry an inordinate and unjust burden of global trade and a globalized economy," said UTEP's Uribarri. She said that from the Bracero Program to NAFTA, development in the Borderland was never followed by adequate investment to protect the environment and provide public services.

"There is no community that can deal with that sort of population explosion unless there's a serious investment in infrastructure," she said. "And we know that didn't happen."

Technician German Perez, with Ciudad Juárez Environmental Department checks a filter on an air quality monitor in Ciudad Juárez in early November 2021.

Juárez Air Quality Department Head Ricardo Aragon said that the city's unfettered growth continues to exacerbate air pollution and harm public health. He hopes that with more air quality monitors they will have the data to prove it. 

Low-income neighborhoods in Juárez, where many streets are unpaved and traffic creeps at a snail's pace, are more likely to have poor air quality, Aragon said.

UACJ's Vázquez also noted that air pollution disproportionally impacts low-income communities.

"Unfortunately, the people who have less economic means are the ones who cannot protect themselves or protect their kids," he said. "They live in a section of the city that is probably one of the most polluted and they don't have medical services."

Shifting pollution sources: Where is it coming from?

Al Melero of El Paso's Air Quality Program said when he started working for the city in 1992, large industrial polluters, like the Asarco smelter, were the focus of air quality regulators.

Since then, maquilas have proliferated. Unlike smelters or refineries, which process raw materials, maquilas assemble household, electronic and automotive goods. Maquilas are not typically large sources of air pollution. But the trucks crisscrossing the border with materials and buses transporting maquila workers create indirect air pollution.

Juan Carlos Gaspar, a technician with the Juárez Environmental Department runs an emissions test on a diesel bus used to transport maquiladora personnel in Ciudad Juárez in early November 2021.

In addition to vehicle emissions, climatic and meteorological forces, like dust storms, also deteriorate the region's air quality. Some air pollution blows in from other states, like particles from from Western wildfires or Gulf Coast refineries. 

"Meteorology has a whole lot to do with air quality," said Karl Rimkus, El Paso Air Quality Program Manager. "Some of these pollutants can travel hundreds or thousands of miles."

Rimkus explained that real time data is key to understanding air pollution. "The question is, where is (air pollution) coming from?" he said. "Day to day that can change and that's why we have to monitor continuously. It's a lot more complex than most people realize."

El Paso residents can consult Airnow.gov and the TCEQ website for real time air quality information. Juarenses have no such tool. Creating accessible public data is a primary goal for officials and researchers in Juárez.

More:New agreement to foster continuous monitoring in El Paso Air Basin: Opinion

'People don't care because they don't know'

Whether the EPA declares El Paso County in ozone nonattainment will be one marker of how far the region has come, or lost ground, on air quality. But just across the border in Juárez, residents and officials face a different set of problems. Working together, officials must address the challenges of both countries.

UACJ's Vázquez said making air quality information available to the public, on both sides of the border, is essential. 

"People don't care because they don't know," he said. "They know the air is bad, but they don't know they can do better. They don't know who or what is responsible for that bad air."

As the Borderland's vehicle fleet grows and international commerce continues, sooner or later, poor air quality will catch up with all of us. 

"With the environment, either you take care of it in advance or you suffer later on," said Vázquez. "If we don't invest more money into protecting the environment, we risk that we will have to invest more money in curing the sick population."

Staff writer Martha Pskowski may be reached at mpskowski@elpasotimes.com and @psskow on Twitter.