When NAFTA was in first bloom: a history of RGISC’s beginnings

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The Río Grande International Study Center (RGISC) came to life in 1994 when NAFTA was in first bloom.

The Río Grande at Laredo and Nuevo Laredo was in peril at that time — in Laredo from unfettered warehouse development and the lack of enforcement for laws that governed the handling of hazardous waste that sat outside warehouses in rusting, seeping 55-gallon metal drums. After a heavy rainfall. that leaking, toxic NAFTA waste ran to the river — a stain on the environment and humanity.

These barrels were fished out of Manadas Creek, a tributary to the Río Grande.

In Nuevo Laredo, colonias with shacks built of pallets and tarps and without water or sewage infrastructure sprang up overnight on the desert floor — shanty towns whose pit privies flooded into the streets and then to the river when it rained.

Barrels stenciled with the same names of hazardous substances that sat outside the warehouses in Laredo were being used to store drinking and household water outside the homes of the colonias.

In Nuevo Laredo 25 to 30 million gallons of raw sewage cascaded daily to the river in massive flows of aguas negras, so voluminous that the sewage formed its own dark and heavy channel in the river — a stain on the environment and on humanity.

The handful of us that were the first members of RGISC in 1994 had in common the friendship of a veterinarian named Dr. Adolfo Kahn, a Republican, a man of very few words who took us in his gigantic station wagon on what he called The Toxic Tour.

Dr. Adolfo Kahn, a Laredo veterinarian, took willing environmentalists and journalists on The Toxic Tour in Nuevo Laredo, an eye-opening look at what was happening to the river as NAFTA enjoyed its first bloom.

His first stop in Nuevo Laredo was a marsh outside the Club Campestre, the Country Club. A bright green growth of carrizo barely concealed a dumping ground of household, slaughterhouse, medical, and industrial waste where pigs rooted to feed on the contaminated waste, only to be themselves later slaughtered and consumed by humans oblivious to what they were really eating.

Just outside Nuevo Laredo’s Club Campestre a herd of pigs rooted in a nearby marsh filled with medical, household, slaughterhouse, and industrial waste.

The second stop on the Toxic Tour was the $50 million dollar Nuevo Laredo sewage treatment plant under construction to harness all of Nuevo Laredo’s daily dump of 25 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Río Grande. The plant never completely stanched the flow, and today, 20 years later, between five and six million gallons of untreated sewage continue to reach the river.

One and a half of the treatment plant’s six original pumps function today, and they are all that stands between a possible environmental disaster for the river and the downriver communities of Río Bravo, El Cenizo, San Ygnacio, Zapata, and the waters of the already environmentally compromised Falcon Reservoir.

Dr. Kahn’s third stop on the tour was the third world of the colonias, its homes built with discarded materials and populated by those who came to the border for jobs at the warehouses and assembly plants that were in full blown NAFTA mode.

RGISC and LCC biologists Jim Earhart, Tom Vaughan, and Pamela Vaughan were relentless investigators, advocates for environmental justice who gave voice to the river and to people that had none, a river that year after year has made the American Rivers list for the top 10 most endangered rivers in the world. In the world. It remains on that list today.

Not all of the river’s peril was at the hands of NAFTA. Its alphabet soup of heavy metals were deposits from U.S. mining operations upriver early in the last century and from the old Anzon antimony smelter on Manadas Creek that for many decades melted antimony ore for manufacturers of asbestos products and then dumped its waste in the creeks and the river.

NAFTA, however, spiked the punch. There was a giddiness to how much money was pouring into Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. To speak up for the environment back then was to rain on the NAFTA parade.

In the face of the gross negligence and indifference of local, state, and federal regulatory agencies, Laredo was fortunate to have RGISC while those agencies acted shamelessly as development foundations for polluting industries.

Over the course of its stellar history as a non-profit steward of the river and its watershed, RGISC members helped write the City’s first Haz Mat Ordinance, which led to the establishment of the Environmental Services Department. There was a time when developers actually filled and re-routed Manadas Creek to add more square footage to their subdivisions. RGISC, Mother Nature, and gravity defied that practice. The organization helped draft the City’s Green Space ordinance. RGISC has defended the river against the use of herbicides and defoliants.

Those are but a few examples of RGISC’s work. There’s far more to what the organization has accomplished over the last 24 years. Executive director Tricia Cortez knows by rote the issues brought to resolution and projects brought to fruition. Among the successes, she will tell you, is now a seat at the table of city government.

Tricia Cortez is to be commended for the eight years she has invested in RGISC, and for all the forward thinking, for all the research, and for a no-stone-left-unturned approach to problem solving and fund raising.

One of Tricia’s strong suits is to invite dialogue as she has with City government, Webb County, the International Boundary and Water Commission, the state, and the U.S. Border Patrol.

With Tricia, you get Joey Lopez, a much respected asset of thoughtfulness, reliability, and kindness.

RGISC’s incredibly small staff of three — Erika Saenz, Lucia Juarez, and Tricia — does the work of many from a rickety old wooden building just above the river vega at LCC. They are inspired, informed individuals who work for the greater good.

The current RGISC board of directors — Danny Gunn, Juan Livas, Melissa Cigarroa, Eddie Garza, Tagi Sagafi-nejad, Kathy García, Bianca Brewster, and David Almaraz — deserve a nod, and so do advisory board members Israel Reyna, Dr. Tom Vaughan, and Ruben Soto Jr.

For nearly a quarter century RGISC has aligned itself on the side of right. There is much energy and passion to what is accomplished by staff and board to care for this storied river, this river that filled the hearts and dreams of our ancestors, this river that drew them here to make their lives, as we now make ours.

We invite all Laredoans to join us as members and volunteers for the many events we stage annually to heighten awareness of the need to care for the riparian beauty of this majestic life-giving river.

(You can become a member by calling 956-718-1063.)


2 thoughts on “When NAFTA was in first bloom: a history of RGISC’s beginnings

  1. Excellent article, MEG, thank you to all these caring people you mention. Many American companies that have established themselves in Mexico have done so to avoid EPA rules and guidelines in the states…the current administrative efforts to loosen those guidelines are the way to fulfill the campaign promise to bring businesses and jobs back to the states and is directly tied to this effort….Sadly, Americans are going to pay a very high price for this…

  2. Great article. Thanks to the group a lot has been done – Hope some day they will consider trying to control the cane and help save a lot of wasted water