South Of The Border

Nuclear power plant. Coal plant towers. Oil rig.
Miguel Monroy is on the front lines of a losing battle against air pollution.

Imperial County, Calif., on the Mexican border, has some of the worst air in the country and Monroy, a local pollution control officer, believes his job is about to get harder, reports CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales — thanks to the state's energy crisis.

A series of new natural gas power plants are being built, or planned, just south of the border in Mexicali, Mexico.

Critics charge American companies are building the plants to avoid tough U.S. environmental standards. Pollution laws aren't as strict in Mexico, where new plant permits can be processed in as little as 6 months — it can take up to 2 years in the U.S.

The power plant building boom means jobs and money for Mexico, but much of the electricity generated here will flow north to feed America's desperate energy needs — leaving border communities to deal with more pollution.

"You can see how far the border is, less than half a mile. If ozone is produced as a product of those emissions, the people that live in this neighborhood, in this air basin, could suffer the consequences," warned Monroy.

Imperial County says "there will be a large increase in emissions" of carbon monoxide and of nitrogen oxide — which causes ozone and smog. The county claims the plants "pose a serious threat to the health of citizens on both sides of the border."

Professor Margarito Nunez, a Mexican pollution expert at the Autonomous University of Baja at Mexicali, says childhood asthma rates on the border are at an all-time high.

When asked if there is cause to worry that those numbers will go up, Nunez said, "I think so, yes. That is going to be something that will come as a result of the setting those two plants in the valley of Mexicali."

Sempra energy is building what they claim will be the cleanest natural gas power plant in Mexico. Ninety percent of the electricity generated will go to the United States.

"We're not there to dirty the environment. So when we build our plants, whether we build them in Mexico, California or Arizona, we pick the toughest standards — which are currently the California standards — and we build all of our plants to meet that standard," said Donald Felsinger, President of Sempra Energy Global Enterprises.

Maybe so, but California officials say this plant, being built by another American company, will release ten times more pollution than state law allows. Those emissions are legal under current Mexican law.

Mexico's new minister of natural resources admits environmental laws need to be strengthened, but points out natural gas plants are much better than old oil or coal burning facilities.

"They use natural gas which is not very polluting and they are.... they're quite good for the environment.... well, they are not good, but they pollute less," said VictorLichtinger, minister of natural resources.

Polluting less manot be enough. As more power is generated, it's feared people on the border will pay the price so Californians hundred of miles away can keep the lights on.

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