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Supreme Court Ruling in Mexico-Domiciled NAFTA Trucks Case Is a Loss for Communities on Both Sides of U.S.-Mexico Border


June 7, 2004

Supreme Court Ruling in Mexico-Domiciled NAFTA Trucks Case Is a Loss for Communities on Both Sides of U.S.-Mexico Border

Ruling Will Lead to More Pollution in Border Cities Where People Already Suffer From Pollution Levels That Violate Federal Standard; Texasto Be Hit Hard

 WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a case over harmful emissions from Mexico-domiciled trucks is a loss for states and communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, Public Citizen said today.  It will lead to increased pollution and traffic congestion, placing an enormous burden on border states and communities, many of which are already struggling to deal with too much pollution, the group said.

“This ruling gives a green light to allow trucks to cross the border with no regard for their effect on the environment,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “Communities on both sides of the border are already struggling with severely polluted air. This ruling in essence tells those communities they must fend for themselves, because the federal government isn’t going to help them by ever acknowledging or accurately describing the impact of its own decisions on their air quality.”

The ruling came in a case filed in May 2002 by a coalition of groups including Public Citizen, the Environmental Law Foundation, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the California Federation of Labor AFL-CIO and the California Trucking Association, with the Natural Resources Defense Council and many state officials as amici. The suit claimed that the Bush administration failed to consider the environmental impacts of opening the U.S. border to Mexico-domiciled trucks, which President Bush ordered done in 2001. Bush issued the order after a closed arbitration tribunal established under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ruled that the trade agreement mandated that trucks from the three NAFTA countries be granted access regardless of domestic safety and environmental laws that might otherwise limit such access.

The groups that sued argued that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) disregarded key requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Air Act, and said the agency should have considered the environmental impacts of opening the border.

The Supreme Court on Monday, however, ruled that the FMCSA did not have to do a detailed environmental impact study of the opening of the border because it isn’t the part of the federal government responsible for regulating emissions and was charged only with issuing safety rules. In issuing the ruling, the Court overturned an opinion by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“This ruling says that the predominately Latino population on the U.S. side of the border and their Mexican neighbors can be exposed to additional health and environmental risk, and the Bush administration skates by without even providing information that would help these communities mitigate the ill effects,” Claybrook said.

Many cities, such as Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth, already are choked with smog and are struggling to reduce pollution to meet the demands of the Clean Air Act. And many areas in the Southwest United States violate federal ozone and particulate matter levels.

If the border is open to Mexico-domiciled trucks, meeting federal air quality levels would be much more difficult, if not impossible, according to an April 2002 study by Sierra Research, an environmental consulting firm. This is because Mexico-domiciled trucks are not parties to an agreement to reduce emissions as U.S.-domiciled trucks are, and because the government has taken no steps to ensure that Mexico-domiciled trucks will comply with U.S. rules on emissions, the study said.

Researchers said they expect a large difference between U.S. trucks and Mexican trucks in emissions of oxides of nitrogen, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter beginning in 2007, when stringent new U.S. emissions standards and a new requirement for ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel take effect. Further, Mexico-domiciled trucks tend to be older than U.S.-domiciled trucks, and older trucks have higher emissions than newer vehicles, the study said.

In the highway corridors from San Antonio, Texas, to Monterrey, Mexico, and from Tucson, Ariz., to Hermosillo, Mexico, approximately 80 percent of smog-causing oxides of nitrogen and 90 percent of other pollutants are caused by freight trucking, according to the federal government’s own research.

“This ruling is a slap in the face to all the cities that are trying to breathe easier by reducing harmful emissions,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.

According to a 2003 study commissioned by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, pollution is making children on the U.S.-Mexico border sick. It found that more than 36,000 children suffering from breathing problems were rushed to hospitals in the border city of Ciudad Juarez between 1997 and 2001. The study found a significant link between particulate matter and child deaths in Ciudad Juarez.

“NAFTA strikes again – putting trade over health and the environment,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch program. “This time it is Latino communities up and down the trucking routes in Mexico and throughout the Southwest that will be hurt by dangerous diesel pollution and higher congestion.”