Environmentalists Hail Court's NAFTA Ruling

BUOYED by their court victory this week on the North American Free Trade Agreement, environmentalists now hope to influence future trade pacts as well. This includes activity under the ``Uruguay Round'' of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and any expansion of NAFTA to include other Latin American countries, such as Chile and Argentina.

``This sets a precedent for any trade negotiations in the future,'' said Roni Lieberman, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, one of three nonprofit groups that sued the Trade Representative's office. ``It's a major victory for the environment.''

In addition, say representatives of the other groups (Friends of the Earth and Public Citizen), environmental advocates hope to use federal judge Charles Richey's decision to help force existing economic activity along the United States-Mexican border to be less polluting.

The Environmental Protection Agency and General Accounting Office have found that US-owned plants in Mexico often do not obey Mexican environmental laws. ``They can increase profits 200 percent by not complying with environmental law,'' says Andrea Durbin, a policy analyst with Friends of the Earth. ``US companies are operating in an irresponsible manner and NAFTA, as it's written, now does nothing to address this.''

That could change if Judge Richey's ruling withstands a Clinton administration legal appeal. The essence of Wednesday's decision is that NAFTA falls under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires federal agencies to file an environmental-impact statement (EIS) for ``every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.''

The Bush administration, which signed NAFTA last year, said the pact did not require an EIS. During the presidential campaign, Bill Clinton said it did require one, but as president he has proposed ``side agreements'' to NAFTA to address environmental and labor concerns.

While noting, ``this lawsuit should not be construed as a failure of the present administration,'' Richey termed an EIS ``essential for providing Congress and the public the information needed to assess the present and future environmental consequences of, as well as the alternatives to, the NAFTA....''

Richey agrees with the groups bringing suit that NAFTA could preempt health and environmental laws, noting that the limited free-trade zone along the border ``has resulted in grave environmental problems to those people living on either side of the border.

``These problems are so severe that the area has been called a 'virtual cesspool and breeding ground for infectious diseases,' '' he wrote. He also rejected the notion that trade agreements are solely the prerogative of the executive branch.

`IN arguing that the EIS requirement will impede the president's power to conduct foreign policy, the [US Trade Representative] conveniently ignores the fact that the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations is given to the Congress under the Constitution,'' Richey wrote.

As for the environmental side agreement, environmentalists find it inadequate. This month, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, Friends of the Earth, and the Humane Society of the United States (with endorsements from 24 other advocacy groups) cited ``omissions and ambiguities'' in it. Among them: funding for environmental cleanup, standards for products and manufacturing processes, the right of states and localities to set standards higher than international agreements, and conflicts between NAFTA and exist ing international environmental agreements. The groups also termed ``inadequate'' provisions on dispute resolution, enforcement, and public participation.

``The administration may have believed that the impact assessment would come later,'' said John Fitzgerald, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. Assuming Richey's order stands, the administration would have to put forth a draft environmental-impact report, allow public comment to these provisions, then issue a final EIS. This could take up to a year, which would certainly delay NAFTA's planned implementation in January 1994.

Critics charge that environmental groups are trying to kill NAFTA by creating delays or putting up barriers. Environmentalists deny this. ``We are pro-trade. We believe in trade,'' Ms. Lieberman insists. ``But it's got to be with environmental protection.''

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