IF Iraqi troops had attacked with chemical weapons during the Persian Gulf war, Mexicans joked that they had a deadly way to retaliate: hit them with bombs filled with Mexico City's dangerously polluted air. Mexico's pollution - air, water, and land - is among the world's worst. Now critics charge that White House plans to integrate the economies of Mexico and the United States with a free-trade agreement could aggravate pollution problems in both nations.
``We face a growing environmental nightmare on the border that, if left unchecked, could spread to the rest of our nation,'' warns Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio.
Sen. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado says the White House seems to be treating environmental questions as a ``secondary issue'' in its trade talks with Mexico. But environmental and economic questions must be integrated to avoid costly mistakes, the senator says.
Unless President Bush can fend off such critics, obstacles like dirty air and water could destroy his dream of creating a North American free-trade zone encompassing the 360 million people in the US, Mexico, and Canada.
The first test of the president's strength comes this week. On Tuesday, committees in the Senate and the House of Representatives are scheduled to vote on a related proposal which would give the president ``fast track'' authority to wrap up a trade treaty with Mexico quickly.
Alarmed by the speed and scope of the president's plan, however, critics are sounding the alarm about Mexico's poor record on the environment. They are also warning of the danger that US firms may move to Mexico to escape tough American antipollution laws. Recently, the president's critics got a major boost. The General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report which concludes that American companies already are shifting factories south of the border to escape US enviro nmental laws.
The GAO study focused on wood furniture manufacturers in the Los Angeles area. It found that during the 1988-90 period, between 11 and 28 wood furniture firms had shifted their plants into Mexico from Los Angeles.
Two factors were responsible. GAO says 83 percent of the factories were moved, in part, to take advantage of lower Mexican wages (77 cents an hour, compared with $8.92 an hour in Los Angeles). The other major reason, cited by 78 percent of the manufacturers, was Los Angeles' tough air pollution standards.
Currently, Mexico has no standards whatsoever to regulate air pollution emissions from paint coatings and solvents in the Tijuana area just across the border, GAO reports. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has set increasingly tough rules which will eventually require a 93 percent cut in volatile pollutants by July 1, 1996.
Environmentalists worry that a free-trade agreement will greatly accelerate this flight of US companies. That could bring growing pressure to cut US standards.
Jaime Serra-Puche, Mexico's secretary of commerce and industrial development, says such concerns are unfounded. Mexico's economy is so small compared with the US - about 4 percent as large - that whatever impact there is will be minimal.
Just as important, Dr. Serra-Puche says Mexico has no intention of becoming a dumping ground for more pollution. It is Mexicans who are most interested in the environment of Mexico, he insists, and new, tougher enforcement proves it.
A White House report sent to Congress on May 1 supports Serra-Puche's position. It notes that SEDUE, Mexico's Ministry for the Environment, grew from just $5 million in 1989 to $39 million in 1991.
Luke Hester, a spokesman for the US Environmental Protection Agency, says that to ease public concerns, EPA is conducting ``an extensive environmental assessment'' of potential impacts from a free trade agreement. The study, which will be in draft form by the end of June, will particularly focus on the border.
The White House pledges that it ``will not agree to weaken US environmental and health laws ... as part of the FTA [free-trade agreement], and we will maintain enforcement of them.''
But skeptics abound. Although the president is eventually expected to win this debate, the vote to give him fast-track authority on the treaty could be extremely close, especially in the House.
Many lawmakers are aware of the deteriorating environmental conditions on the border. Because of Mexico's rapid growth, the New River, which flows into California from Mexico, has turned into a putrid, open sewer with the wastes of more than 1 million people in Mexicali. Similarly, the Tijuana River, which flows from Mexico into San Diego, carries infectious pollutants.
Air quality also has suffered. During times of the year, for example, a yellowish haze hangs over El Paso, Texas, as dirty air swirls across the Rio Grande from nearby Ciudad Juarez.
Bush insists that growth and environmental quality go hand in hand - they are ``complementary.'' Without economic growth, Mexicans will be unable or unwilling to support environmental cleanups, he says.
Environmentalists remain unconvinced. Alex Hittle, internatonal coordinator for Friends of the Earth, insists:
``The president's plan is flawed. What he is saying is that Mexico's environment will get better only as they get rich. Rich, then clean.... The president is throwing a party, and hoping you collect enough at the door to buy a vacuum cleaner.''