February 28, 2024

On a dark November night, a stream of cars and trucks lined up to cross the US border into Mexico. The commute, a commonplace one for many who live and work in the border city of El Paso, Texas, seemed interminable, and as the wait dragged on, the exhaust leaving idling cars choked the surrounding air.

At Bridge of the Americas, one of the region’s most popular ports of entry, this slow crawl across the border is a near daily occurrence – and residents of surrounding communities say the resulting air pollution is killing them.

The port is the city’s only toll-free one, making it especially attractive to the hundreds of thousands of commercial vehicles that cross there annually. The bridge’s facilities are over 50 years old and federal regulators say they are in urgent need of revitalization. But local environmental advocates say such an effort would cater to the needs of the business owners who use the port over the health concerns of the residents who live nextdoor.

“It’s a public health issue. Lives are being affected,” said Cemelli de Aztlan, a community organizer with La Mujer Obrera, an El Paso organization committed to empowering working women of Mexican heritage. She worries that local leaders aren’t doing enough to elevate the concerns of its most vulnerable residents. “To dismiss the health of residents and prioritize [industry] is not acceptable.”

In light of the federal push to revamp the Bridge of the Americas, some residents say commercial vehicles shouldn’t be using the bridge in the first place given that it’s located so close to homes, schools and churches in a historically disadvantaged neighborhood. For activists like De Aztlan who have been living with the environmental impacts of trucks coming in and out of their communities for years, the goal is clear.

“Get the trucks out,” De Aztlan said.

A history of pollution

For companies that move goods from maquilas on the Mexican side of the border into the US, the federal push to modernize the toll-free bridge represents an opportunity to make their operations even more efficient.

An aerial view of the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso Texas in 2016. Photograph: James Tourtellotte/US Customs and Border Protection

But many in the surrounding south-central El Paso neighborhoods see the project as an opportunity to highlight existing environmental injustices, saying that the truck traffic worsens the surrounding area’s air quality and puts their respiratory health at risk.

South-central El Paso has historically been home to working-class communities like the San Xavier neighborhood, where residents say their feedback on infrastructure projects has previously been ignored. Ricardo Leon has lived in San Xavier, adjacent to the Bridge of the Americas, for the majority of the last 60 years. He said he’s developed a cough from exposure to diesel fumes from the trucks that cross the border every day.

“They’re just idling and you can smell everything. On a hot day it’s very, very irritating, annoying. You just can’t stand it. Your eyes start burning, you feel it in your throat, you can taste it,” Leon said.

Neighbors are particularly concerned about the traffic’s impact on their children. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represents residents of the San Xavier community, recently requested that Zavala elementary school, which abuts the highway, be closed and converted into a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) administrative office.

Poor air quality has long been a community issue for this region of El Paso. The Environmental Protection Agency puts the diesel particulate matter, traffic proximity, and air toxics cancer risks in the neighborhoods surrounding the Bridge of the Americas in the 95-100th percentile range compared with the rest of the country. The American Lung Association ranked El Paso as the 14th worst city in the US for ozone pollution, giving it an F rating.

Penelope Quintana, a public health professor at San Diego State University who studies the impact of idling trucks near ports of entry, said air pollution from vehicles can increase the incidence of asthma, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. “Heavy duty trucks spew out much more pollution than passenger vehicles, and it tends to be very toxic pollution,” Quintana said.

Indeed, south-central El Paso has some of the city’s highest asthma rates, with all US census tracts in the area above the 8% national average, according to the Maps for Equity project.

Leon and his neighbors worry pollution could get even worse if the federal government’s $700m investment in revamping the Bridge of Americas expands the port and encourages more companies to open factories in nearby Mexico. The port currently sees 200,000 commercial trucks cross yearly.

For De Aztlan, who lives in the Chamizal neighborhood, directly across from the Bridge of the Americas, knowing the history of the port is key to understanding how it has disrupted local communities.

During a 1963 convention, US and Mexican leaders renegotiated the binational border; the resulting demarcation had the border running through the middle of the Chamizal area. “When they did that they were dividing a neighborhood where suddenly someone’s grandma lived in another nation,” De Aztlan said. The Bridge of the Americas followed a few years later, in 1967.

Customs and Border Protection agents check documents of people entering the US at the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso, Texas, on 8 November 2021. Photograph: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

The bridge being free was intended to keep binational families closer, said De Aztlan, not for big companies to cheaply move goods between the countries, which she said increased with the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

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An uncertain path forward

In recent months, there have been some signs that the federal agency that manages the Bridge of the Americas port is listening to activists’ claims. But residents remain unsure of what happens next.

The General Services Administration (GSA) is currently weighing a number of different designs for the port’s renovation, including an option that would prohibit commercial vehicles, according to Daniel Partida, the GSA senior project manager. That option, which Partida said was developed in response to community feedback, would require buy-in from CBP, which currently remains up in the air.

Regardless of the ultimate design, the federal project will include tearing down and rebuilding the port’s ageing buildings. In all versions (except the option forgoing commercial lanes) the number of passenger and commercial lanes would expand.

The GSA is taking comments about the project from the community through 23 February 2024 and plans to announce the design decision sometime next year, after completing an environmental impact statement.

Although the ultimate design of the revamped port will be determined and funded by federal powers, advocates who oppose commercial vehicles at the port have been calling on local leaders to back their cause, hoping their support could help sway the final outcome. But their success has been mixed: some city and county officials have supported letters calling to ban trucks on the Bridge of the Americas, while others have balked at the idea. Recently, on 30 January, the El Paso city council blocked an effort to send the GSA a letter supporting the removal of trucks from the Bridge of the Americas.

“At the very least we owed it to [constituents] to listen to them,” said Josh Acevedo, a newly elected city representative, who represents much of south-central El Paso. He added, “This is a group that has been shunned over and over in many different areas.” His office plans to submit its own letter to the GSA advocating for the removal of commercial trucks from the port.

Veronica Escobar, a representative who called the federal project “significant” and “long overdue”, has argued that making the port more efficient could reduce air pollution if trucks spend less time idling. However, she said she was soliciting feedback from constituents and hoping to hear more about their vision for the port.

But some in the south-central neighborhoods are tired of giving feedback.

“We know that the congresswoman is involved on some level, but she’s our previous county commissioner, she’s our previous county judge,” said Cynthia Renteria, who lives in south-central El Paso. “She should be familiar with the needs of these neighborhoods.”

Renteria said her community is ready for a solution now. They’ve recently seen trucks shift away from ports – as waves of migrants crossed into El Paso in recent months and border enforcement officials chose to close the port to commercial vehicles last September. The move intensified calls to remove commercial vehicles permanently.

Renteria said while the project could potentially benefit the wider El Paso-Ciudad Juárez community, her neighborhood and their health concerns have historically not been taken seriously.

“It’s dangerous to be outside when you’re breathing diesel, or when it’s not safe to cross the street, or when you’re missing sidewalks,” she said. “That is the kind of neglect that this area has faced.”

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