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PERSPECTIVE ON FREE TRADE : Pollution Won't Be a Byproduct : The treaty will give unprecedented attention to U.S. and Mexican environmental concerns, especially on the border.

August 02, 1992|WILLIAM K. REILLY | William K. Reilly is the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

As President Bush comes closer to signing a North American free-trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, critics are expressing fears that it might hurt U.S. workers and the environment. They worry that it will cripple the environment by increasing pollution along the U.S.-Mexico border, by luring high-pollution firms to Mexico or by lowering U.S. environmental standards in the name of comparability.

In many ways, these concerns reflect old thinking about the environment--a fear that economic growth must pollute, and that trade agreements will ignore such important matters as the quality of water and air. That's not the way President Bush views the world, and that's not the way his Administration views the North American free-trade agreement.

Work on this agreement is setting a new high standard of environmental sensitivity and innovation. It promises to strengthen the relationship between jobs and ecological stewardship, and it invites once-hostile factions to join in crafting a treaty that will help us all.

No trade agreement in history has invited or withstood the kind of environmental scrutiny accorded the North American free-trade agreement. President Bush decided early on that it should raise the level of economic and environmental performance in the border area and throughout our countries. The Administration appointed the leaders of several environmental organizations to serve on the U.S. trade representative's trade policy advisory committees. The Office of the Trade Representative also examined the treaty for potential environmental impacts--a first for a trade agreement.

The United States and Mexico have agreed on an array of joint activities that complement the environmental provisions of the agreement. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency and its Mexican counterpart developed an integrated plan that addresses many of the concerns related to pollution in the border area, and our two countries have committed substantial funds to its implementation: $241 million in fiscal 1993 from the United States and $460 million from Mexico over the next three years.

Last month, Congress cut the funds, reducing support for sewage treatment in San Diego-Tijuana, Nogales and other areas, but we still expect to spend far more on the border environment than ever before. The United States is helping Mexico to improve its ability to solve its environmental problems. This includes such areas as technology cooperation, environmental education, chemical emergency response, technical training and support, data exchange and enforcement training and cooperation. We're even conducting joint plant inspections. Recently, a Mexican border guard tipped us off to a bribe attempt by an illegal shipper of hazardous waste, who we then caught and convicted.

Mexico, meanwhile, has taken important steps to clean its environment while opening up its economy. Mexico's comprehensive environmental law, passed in 1988, is as strong as the panoply of U.S. environmental laws. One provision allows the Mexican EPA to shut down facilities violating Mexican environmental laws until the plants install pollution-control devices or meet other conditions.

Mexico has devoted considerable resources to environmental law enforcement. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, at a breakfast meeting I attended early last year, told a group of industrialists that he was interested in improving the quality of life in Mexico. "I am not interested in dirty jobs," he said. "We know dirty jobs. That is our past. It will not be our future."

Mexico now requires complete environmental impact assessments for new investment, public and private. The Mexican government has conducted 7,700 environmental inspections during the past six years and had shut down 1,926 factories by 1991 (109 facilities were closed permanently). Mexico has quadrupled the number of inspectors in the border region in the past two years, increased its enforcement budget 1,000% and made it clear that it will not serve as a dumping ground for anyone.

Our nations have worked hard to ensure that the trade agreement safeguards not only our environment but also our ability to develop rigorous standards for protecting it. The agreement permits the United States--and our states--to set standards even where they exceed international norms. More important, it promotes movement toward common high standards of environmental protection.

As the Mexican economy grows, so will its devotion to environmental protection and its ability to pay the costs of ecological stewardship. The North American free-trade agreement, like the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, reflects a growing realization on the part of governments around the world that we will not have the resources to deal with environmental needs unless we also foster economic growth, and we will not have the kind of growth we want unless we attend to our environmental needs: clean air, clean water, land free of pollution.

The world has begun moving away from old approaches to pollution abatement and toward solutions that stress innovation, jobs and vigorous enforcement of environmental laws. The North American free-trade agreement presents a unique opportunity for the United States, Mexico and Canada to improve the economic and environmental prospects for hundreds of millions of people, to enhance our own economic opportunities and environmental conditions and to show the rest of the world that environmentalism and economic expansion together hold the keys to a better future.

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