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
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
"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. …