Companies with chemical plants just south of the U.S. border are under increasing political and environmental pressure. Recently, the environmental protection agencies of the U.S. and Mexico announced they are seeking public comment on plans to improve the environment along the border. And this week a decision is expected from a Mexican court on whether to uphold a decree that creates a twomile buffer zone around Quimica Fluor, a hydrofluoric acid (HF) plant partly owned by Du Pont (Wilmington) in the border town of Matamoros. The decree requests evacuation of at least 10,000 families living around the plant. It has been contested by local residents — especially workers who do not wish to be moved. But the idea of a buffer zone is a sound one say members of industry groups and local representatives. In Mexico it is not uncommon to nave communities crowded around industrial sites — a situation that exacerbated the tragedy at Bhopal, India in 1984.
The Quimica Fluor plant is being used as a trial example for the creation of similar zones, says Alfonso Ruiz Hernandez, director general of Quimica Fluor, which is 67% owned by Empresas Frisco, a Mexican holding company. The rest is owned by Du Pont, which provided the technology for HF production. The plant produces 50% of the HF used by Du Pont to make HFC-134A at Corpus Christi, TX.
“The case of Quimica Fluor is the first one in Mexico and probably the first in Latin America were a safety zone is created,” says Hernandez. “We would not be comfortable if growth continued around the plant,” he adds. In the past fugitive releases damaged local sorghum crops, Hernandez says. But the releases were stopped. The plant also had an explosion in 1980 that killed two people inside the plant. But since then the plant’s record has been clean, and it is considered safe, says Domingo Gonzalez, a consultant for the Texas Center for Policy Studies (Austin).
Du Pont and other companies, including Stepan (Northfield, IL), which has a surfactant plant in Matamoros, are also being pressured by environmental and religious groups concerned about the pollution in the area and its effect on workers who Mock there for jobs. No hazardous waste leaves the Quimica Fluor site, says Hernandez.
At the plant owned by Stepan, the handling of its wastes is in the process of being upgraded to U.S. EPA standards. When the company bought the plant three years ago “the plant was in compliance with the relatively limited environmental rules of the Mexican government,” says William W. Meier, senior v.p./Stepan chemicals. “gut our view is that U.S. businesses nave the responsibility to not only comply with local law but to live up to U.S. standards.”