Clean air or free trade?

Clean air or free trade?

The Supreme Court's decision on whether Mexican trucks may operate in the U.S. will balance free trade against U.S. environmental concerns.

The court agreed last week to a Bush administration request to decide whether Mexican trucks should be subject to environmental reviews before being allowed to travel on U.S. roads. Those trucks have been unable to operate in the U.S. because of a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that environmental reviews must be completed be-fore the trucks are allowed into the U.S.

At this point the battle could be more symbolic than economically meaningful, though there are strong voices on both sides of the issue. Fewer than 300 Mexican-domiciled carriers have applied for U.S. operating authority. Carrier executives in the U.S. and in Mexico say there will be no great influx of Mexican carriers into the U.S., where more than 625,000 carriers are registered with the Department of Transportation.

The case was brought before the 9th Circuit by a coalition of truck safety and environmental groups assisted by the Teamsters union, which fears a loss of jobs if low-paid Mexican drivers find substantial amounts of work in the U.S. Now that the case is going to the Supreme Court, supporters of the U.S. rules predict a favorable ruling.

"We believe that when the Supreme Court reviews all the facts, the justices will rule that federal environmental laws require the government to determine the health impact of these trucks before - not after - they begin rolling through the American heartland," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, which led the coalition bringing the lawsuit.

Last January, the appellate court ruled that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration "acted arbitrarily and capriciously" and violated federal environmental laws by taking steps to give Mexico-domiciled trucks full access to U.S. highways - a move promised by the North American Free Trade Agreement but long delayed - without an adequate environmental review.

"Americans have a right to know that all trucks - regardless of their origin - meet our basic environmental and safety standards," Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said.

The Bush administration asked the Supreme Court to step in despite the fact that the Department of Transportation already has begun to assess the environmental impact in compliance with the court order, by holding nine public meetings across the country, among other measures.

"The last thing the Bush administration should do is stop this process dead in its tracks. Unfortunately, this administration would rather cut corners than protect the health of Americans," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which intervened in the case in support of the coalition.

The 9th Circuit noted that "a wealth of government and private studies" show diesel exhaust and its components constitute a major threat to the health of children, contribute to respiratory illnesses such as asthma and bronchitis and likely are carcinogenic.

The 9th Circuit also concluded: "The issues before us do not touch on (President Bush's) clear, unreviewable discretionary authority to modify the moratorium" on trucks coming over the border and that "neither the validity of that nor the United States' compliance with NAFTA is before us." The DOT appealed the ruling, and the high court will hear oral arguments this spring.

The moratorium on Mexico-domiciled trucks began in 1982 under the Reagan administration, but the battle has intensified since 1993, when NAFTA was approved by Congress.

Technically, the U.S. has been in violation of NAFTA for several years. NAFTA formally allowed Mexican carriers access to U.S. roads in 1995. But President Clinton, bowing to political pressure, refused to allow them to drive more than 20 miles beyond the border. President Bush lifted that restraint in 2001 but the appeals court intervened.