Great Lakes [H.Sub.2]O "Annexed" by WTO

Article excerpt

Water, water, everywhere. Is every drop for sale? It seems the answer is yes in regard to the Great Lakes.

Declaring the necessity of protecting the Great Lakes from exploitation, a quasi-governmental body called the Council of Great Lakes Governors was charged with studying how to protect the lakes in the future. Instead, the council came up with a plan to drain the lakes--with the blessing of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The proposal, called Annex 2001, is an amendment to the Great Lakes Charter of 1985. The annex declares withdrawals of up to 365 million gallons of water too small to regulate, has no enforcement mechanisms for its proclaimed lofty goals of improving the Great Lakes watershed, and, ultimately, cedes all authority to regulate water exports to the World Trade Organization in the Hague, Netherlands.

The Council of Great Lakes Governors was given its task in response to public outrage over a proposal to export hundreds of millions of gallons of water from Lake Superior in 1998. The provincial government of Ontario, Canada, rescinded the permit it had granted to a water export company. Annex 2001 now opens the door for similar abuses.

The annex starts out with the assumption that the Great Lakes' water must be given to corporations for export. It claims that these withdrawals cannot have "significant" adverse effects on water quality or quantity. Then it creates a loophole--known as the De Minimis impact--big enough to drive a supertanker through.

During a public meeting held on February 21, 2001, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, a representative of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation admitted that there wasn't enough information to determine how much water can be exported from the lakes without damaging their ecosystems. However, this didn't stop the people who drafted the annex from deciding that diversions of up to 365 million gallons annually (on average) are too small to regulate--or "De Minimus."

What this means in practical terms is that any company could pilot a tanker into the lakes, fill it with water, and sail off to Asia or the Middle East as long as that company didn't exceed an arbitrary maximum of 365 million gallons each year. Since each company's diversion would legally be considered separately, all one would need to do is create three companies, which would then make possible the diversion of more than a billion gallons each year. The three companies could even lease the same tanker or pipeline, and there would be no way to stop them. This policy of using smaller, "independent" corporations is routinely used today by other extractive industries, such as timber companies, whenever they have to get around some "limit" on their exploitation.

But, in fact, there would be no need to use dummy corporations because there is no enforcement mechanism in the annex. While each state and province is "granted" authority to enforce its own rules and regulations, there is no enforcement coordination between them, no provisions made for inspection of export processes, and no penalties for breaking the rules.

Perhaps the reason the annex writers didn't bother drawing up penalties or enforcement procedures is because they know such regulations would be a waste of time, since the annex cedes authority over the lakes to the WTO. As the ninth "whereas" in the annex begins, "Whereas the Governors and Premiers must comply with their respective federal laws and international trade laws when considering new or increased water withdrawals proposals," in practical terms this means the WTO would become the final court of judgment in any dispute. …