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U.S. Court Bars Mexican Trucks

Ruling says a thorough review of possible environmental effects is required before Bush can invoke NAFTA and lift restrictions.

January 17, 2003|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court temporarily barred tens of thousands of Mexican trucks from U.S. roadways, ruling Thursday that the Bush administration violated federal environmental laws when it granted them permission to begin operating nationwide this year.

Since 1982 Mexican trucks have been limited to operating within a 20-mile commercial border zone. Last year, acting under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the administration moved to lift that restriction and argued that allowing the trucks to operate freely would have "no significant impact" on the environment. The move had been blocked pending court review.

In its 3-0 decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the finding of minimal environmental impact was based on a "woefully inadequate" review of potential health hazards from the Mexican trucks, many of which do not meet U.S. air pollution standards.

The court said the U.S. Department of Transportation must conduct a detailed study of the possible environmental effects of the trucks, which burn diesel fuel. The court also ruled that the DOT must determine under the federal Clean Air Act whether the influx of trucks will make it more difficult for pollution-ridden cities such as Los Angeles and Houston to come into compliance with federal clean air laws.

The studies are likely to take at least six months and, depending on what they conclude, the government might then be required to take other action, including imposing more stringent controls on the incoming trucks.

During that period, entry to the U.S. beyond the 20-mile limit will be barred for 30,000 Mexican-domiciled trucks whose owners had filed applications for the vehicles to enter the country through the four border states -- California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico -- under the administration's proposed new regulations.

Thursday's ruling clearly affects NAFTA's breadth and addresses a key issue raised by the trade agreement's critics: whether U.S. environmental laws can be overridden in the name of spurring more trade.

"Although we agree with the importance of the United States' compliance with its treaty obligations with its southern neighbor, Mexico, such compliance cannot come at the cost of violating United States law," Appeals Court Judge Kim M. Wardlaw wrote.

Most U.S. and Mexican officials said that the decision was being reviewed and that there would be no further comment Thursday.

Several Mexican transportation officials and union leaders, however, reacted angrily to the decision, vowing to retaliate against U.S. truck drivers headed south. "We ought to do the same: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," said Francisco Patino, a member of the transportation committee of Mexico's parliament.

One longtime Mexican opponent of NAFTA said he was happy about the decision because it would lead to a backlash in Mexico against moves to allow American trucks into the country. "With the first gringo truck, we will close the border," said Elias Dip Rame, leader of the National Confederation of Mexican Truckdrivers.

Mexican officials have been pushing the Bush administration for months to allow the flow of trucks to begin in compliance with NAFTA.

A special arbitration court set up under NAFTA had ruled earlier that the U.S. could not permanently bar entry of Mexican trucks. But the appeals court said the DOT had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" when it promulgated the new regulations without a full environmental review.

Thursday's ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed in May by a coalition of environmental, labor and industry groups including Public Citizen, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California Trucking Assn.

The suit contended that the Mexican trucks would dramatically increase air pollution in this country. The plaintiffs said many of those vehicles are pre-1994 trucks that are the most egregious polluters.

By 2010, the Mexican trucks would emit twice as much particulate matter and nitrogen oxides as U.S. trucks, according to a study conducted for the plaintiffs by a Sacramento firm. The particulates are considered a severe environmental health problem and nitrogen oxides help form ozone, which is dangerous to the lungs.

A bevy of studies has linked diesel emissions to cancer, asthma, bronchitis and urban haze. Children are particularly susceptible to health problems emanating from such emissions, the studies show.

The U.S. government already has said that diesel pollution from trucks has to be reduced dramatically over the next five years, a point the court noted.

In the current case, Justice Department lawyers said in legal briefs that the plaintiffs had exaggerated the increase in diesel emissions that the Mexican trucks would generate.

In addition, the Justice Department contended that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuit because they could not demonstrate that they would suffer a tangible injury.

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