Environmentalists Attack Bush Free-Trade Plan US-Mexico Talks, They Say, Have Ignored Standing Federal Regulations regarding Land Use

Article excerpt

SOOTY, yellow air often hangs over El Paso, Texas, like a dirty blanket. Filled with carbon monoxide, ozone, and particulates, the foul atmosphere obscures the city's skyline and blocks the view of Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande in Mexico.

El Paso's severe pollution, which has worsened during the past 10 years despite new air quality regulations, is just one of many environmental problems along the Mexico-United States border. The growing contamination of air, water, and soil now poses a potential threat to President Bush's plans for a free-trade treaty with Mexico. Environmentalists, led by critics like Mike McCloskey, chairman of the Sierra Club, and Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, are threatening to haul Bush into court. The charge: failure to heed environmental laws in trade talks with Mexico and other nations.

Lori Wallach, an attorney for Public Citizen, complains that the president is crafting trade deals best suited to big business, not to the health and safety of workers on both sides of the border.

Tensions between the White House and its critics intensified during the past week when the administration unilaterally ruled that trade agreements are exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA). Mr. McCloskey and Ms. Claybrook insist that trade agreements, like other federal actions, require compliance with NEPA.

Claybrook says: "Consumer and environmental dangers in our time know no national boundaries.... International agreements must be the new battleground for consumer and environmental law enforcement."

William Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), disputes charges that the Bush administration is avoiding issues like water and air pollution in talks with Mexico.

"I don't think that there has been any previous moment in the history of our two countries when there has been such sustained and intensive and high-level attention to the environmental problems that affect our border," he told an Aug. 1 press conference.

The EPA and the Mexican environmental agency, SEDUE, have crafted a 10-part plan to address problems. But Mike Clark, president of Friends of the Earth, scoffs at EPA's border plan as weak and unenforceable.

"This is a docile dog," Mr. Clark says. "It has no teeth. It cannot bite. It is simply a way to evade the fact that we have good laws on the books, and (Bush) does not want to enforce them."

At the heart of this debate is NEPA, the "magna carta" of conservationists. Again and again since the 1970s, NEPA has forced federal officials to give greater weight to environmental issues. …