NAFTA and Environment

ENVIRONMENTAL problems along the United States-Mexico border help explain the urgency of ensuring adequate environmental safeguards and enforcement mechanisms in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

As a report in today's Monitor on the situation in Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico, indicates, the growth of maquiladoras and Mexico's generally lax enforcement of its own environmental laws have led to severe pollution problems that affect both sides of the border. Although some progress is being made to bring offenders into compliance with environmental regulations, the overall pollution pattern is repeated elsewhere along the two countries' dividing line.

Concern about insufficient safeguards in NAFTA led several environmental groups to federal court in Washington, where on June 30 they won an order requiring the US government to conduct an environmental-impact statement on the pact. The ruling does not prevent President Clinton from continuing to negotiate side agreements to the treaty, one of which deals with the environment. Nor does it prohibit him from submitting the treaty for ratification. But knowing that the order constitutes a potentially fatal threat to the pact in Congress, the administration has appealed the ruling.

Negotiators for the US, Canada, and Mexico are scheduled to meet July 19 in Ottawa and hope to complete work on the environmental side-agreement to NAFTA there. Among the proposals reportedly under consideration: a development bank to help finance projects, such as water and sewage treatment plants, that would help bring areas around new or existing maquiladoras into compliance with environmental regulations. One of the stumbling blocks is enforcement. Mr. Clinton supports the notion of a trilateral pane l that could impose strong sanctions against persistent violators. Canada and Mexico have resisted that idea, claiming it infringes on their sovereignty. Some local environmental groups offer that it may be better to fine specific companies, rather than penalize an entire industrial sector. This may be a useful compromise.

Politically as well as environmentally, it is crucial to develop strong, enforceable regulations to govern NAFTA. Without them, the prospects for ratification in the US are grim.

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