Mexico unveils new pollution-data sources


Mexico has taken two major steps to quantify its output of pollutants and make the data available to the public.

In August, the government unveiled an Emissions and Pollutants Transfer Register (RETC), a new database that tracks emissions of 104 toxic chemicals from over 1,000 industrial facilities in Mexico.

Then last month, it published its first-ever inventory of emissions of six key air pollutants—nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, ammonia and particulate matter—from mobile, point, non-point and natural sources in all 32 states and 2,443 municipalities.

Green groups and environmental officials are portraying the RETC and the National Emissions Inventory as significant advances in the adoption of a “right to know” approach to pollution data. With these two new tools, they say, citizens, civil-society groups, academic institutions and public agencies can conduct a better-informed debate on pollution, public health and the environment.

“We’ve reached very important, very transcendental goals, in publishing the National Emissions Inventory…this inventory is at the highest standard of developed countries,” Mexican Environment and Natural Resources Secretary José Luis Luege said at a Sept. 13 press conference with President Vicente Fox. “We’ve also published on the Internet, totally transparent, the Emissions and Pollutants Transfer Registry, which not even the most developed countries publish on the Internet.”

Cross-border information sharing

The RETC, currently based on data gathered in 2004, is a mandatory reporting system for industry similar to the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) and Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI). Mexico developed it with encouragement and assistance from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), the tri-lateral environmental agency created by Canada, Mexico and the United States in conjunction with the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

The National Emissions Inventory, meanwhile, was prepared by Mexico’s Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat) and National Institute of Ecology (INE). It is based on data collected in 1999, which is the most recent year for which complete information was available, according to Semarnat.

CEC Communications Director Evan Lloyd says the two initiatives will contribute to the development of common pollution-information sources for use across the continent. Mexico, he says, is now on par with the United States and Canada in terms of reporting and comparability of data.

The data sources also will serve to guide domestic anti-pollution efforts. Says Lloyd: “They’re both significant for environmental management nationally and for right to know.”

Experts agree that while the inventory of six air contaminants relies on 1999 data, it points to mobile-source emissions—air contamination from vehicles—as Mexico’s most urgent air-pollution problem. And an immediate step Mexico must take on that score, they say, is to cut sulfur-dioxide emissions by reducing the sulfur content of gasoline.

Eyes on Congress

Mexico’s Congress is expected to address that issue in budget deliberations in December, when it considers a proposal to fund the retrofitting of refineries operated by Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state oil monopoly, so they produce low-sulfur gasoline. Pemex, which is required by law to make low-sulfur gas available, has had to arrange imports of the fuel while it awaits funding for the retrofits.

“We already have the laws in place to cut sulfur content in gasoline, but Pemex is still waiting for the funds from the Finance Secretariat,” says Tania Mijares, director of the air and energy program at the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda), one of Mexico’s leading green groups.

The RETC also is expected to bolster the case for cleanup action. “This [RETC] information has created a great opportunity for industry to optimize their processes,” says Ana María Contreras, general director of air management and RETC for Semarnat.

Cemda’s Mijares agrees. “There are many benefits to industry of having to report pollution,” Mijares says. “This information will help them to be more efficient in terms of energy use and applying cleaner technology; it’s also important for the modernization of the sector.”

According to the CEC’s Lloyd, the only major difference between Mexico’s RETC and the mandatory reporting systems of the United States and Canada is that “the basket of chemicals is somewhat smaller.” In Canada, the National Pollutant Release Inventory covers 300 chemicals and the TRI in the United States requires reports on 650, while Mexico only requires information on 104.

Both Lloyd and Mijares agree, however, that the 104 chemicals Mexico targets are the substances of greatest concern. Lloyd also points out that over time, the RETC will be expanded to take in additional chemicals.

- Eliza Barclay

Ana María Contreras
General Director
Air Management and RETC
Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat)
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5624-3501
Evan Lloyd
Communications Director
Commission for Environmental Cooperation
Montreal, Canada
Tel: (514) 350-4308
Fax: (514) 350-4314
Tania Mijares
Air and Energy Program
Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda)
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5286-3323
Fax: +(52 55) 5211-2593