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Environmental Groups, Others Embrace River Cleanup Efforts

By Richard Montenegro
Imperial Valley Press, February 17, 2001

 

CALEXICO - Efforts by a recently hatched committee here to pipe a 3.5-mile length of the New River north from the border is being championed by The Sierra Club, The Greenlining Institute of San Francisco and the institute's coalition of some 40 minority and Latino organizations, it was announced here Thursday.

Long known as one of the filthiest bodies of water in North America, the New River flowing north from Mexicali is rife with potentially deadly bacteria, metals, volatile organic compounds and pesticides.

While local officials have sought solutions to the health and safety problems associated with the highly polluted waters, Calexico New River Committee officials say little has been done even though millions of dollars have been designated for cleanup amid some 30 years of rhetoric and promises by the U.S. government to clean the waterway.

On Thursday, committee members, city officials and members of The Greenlining Institute, as well as top officials with the Mexican American Political Association and the American G.I. Forum, met in the Horacio Luna Gun Club on West Second Street - a stone's throw from the murky waters - to announce efforts to seek an international partnership between U.S. President George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox to fund the piping of the New River and create an "international friendship park" over the covered body of water.

Further, The Greenlining Institute announced plans to meet with Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and other federal officials to find the funding necessary to pipe the filthy waters.

John Gamboa, executive director of The Greenlining Institute said Thursday, "Everything we were told about (the New River) was true. It's an intolerable situation and it should not be happening."

He said finding solutions to the pollution at the river should be one of the first priorities in "setting an agenda of friendship and cooperation" between the new administrations of Bush and Fox.

"There's no better way than fixing the New River situation in Calexico," Gamboa added.

The New River Committee, The Greenlining Institute and The Sierra Club are asking that 90 percent of the approximately $30 million needed to pipe the river be paid for by the United States.

Gamboa said a meeting in March between Greenspan and a number of Latino and minority leaders will focus on making the piping of the New River eligible for funding not presently available because of the river's size.

He explained Greenspan's Community Reinvestment Act has allowed special credits to financial institutions investing in low-income communities for environmental cleanup and other problems. However, those credits are geared toward either large-scale cleanups like contaminated former military bases and communities wracked by manufacturing waste or toward smaller problems like contaminated lots.

Gamboa said the New River falls in between.

He said the situation at the New River warrants "a special exemption" and The Greenlining Institute and its 40-organization coalition will push for such an exemption.

On hand Thursday was national MAPA Executive Director Ben Benavidez, who told those assembled at the gun club that efforts to pipe the New River will now have the full weight of "la gente," or the people.

Weight, indeed.

Said New River Committee member Hildy Carrillo-Rivera: "This is the first time weight like this has been thrown behind the New River. This is great. I really believe something is going to happen now."

City Councilman John Renison said he predicts a resolution to the issue in 12 to 24 months.

Gamboa and his staff read from a letter dated Wednesday and written by Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope to presidents Bush and Fox calling for aid in piping the New River.

Stated Pope in the communiqué: "For far too long our two countries have failed to resolve the pollution problems affecting the New River. A lack of financial commitment and regulatory will on the U.S. side of the border, combined with insufficient institutional capacity on the Mexican side, have left the peoples of the Mexicali Valley, Calexico and the Imperial Valley exposed to almost unimaginable levels of toxic pollution."

Those officials gathered for the press conference said the piping of the river should only be an immediate interim solution, as the eventual cleanup of the New River should be the goal.

Committee Chairman Rudy Maldonado, a Calexico resident and member of the Imperial Irrigation District Board of Directors, said, "For three decades there's been a lot of rhetoric about cleaning up the river. While we were talking, (Mexico) went ahead and did it on their side. I think we can do it, too."

Five miles of the New River south from the border have been covered in recent years by Mexico. Parks have been erected and efforts are under way to improve Mexicali's waste water treatment plants through a combination of U.S. and Mexican funding.

Maldonado said recent statistics have shown 100 undocumented immigrants a day cross into the United States through the New River, taking with them bacteria that can turn into viruses. That jeopardizes their health and the health of those communities to which they travel.

He said three Calexico schools - Blanche Charles and Mains elementary schools and William Moreno Junior High - are far too close to the river.

Further, he added the U.S. Border Patrol has reported agents coming down with skin rashes and complaining of burning skin upon emerging from the New River while apprehending undocumented immigrants.

"It compromises their welfare and safety in doing their jobs," Maldonado said.