Trucking''s Day in Court

Trucking''s Day in Court

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Trucking gets its day at the U.S. Supreme Court when the court hears oral arguments April 21 in the decades-old issue of allowing Mexican-domiciled trucks full access to this country. The hour-long arguments are scheduled for 11 a.m.

At issue is whether this country''s environmental and safety laws trump the fine print of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Under NAFTA, this country should have allowed Mexican carriers access to U.S. roads in January 2000. But former President Bill Clinton, bowing to political pressure from the Teamsters, refused to allow Mexican carrier to drive more than 20 miles beyond the border. President Bush lifted that restraint in 2001 but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals intervened a year ago and halted that edict.

The 9th Circuit ruled that environmental reviews must be completed before the trucks are allowed into the United States. In January 2003, 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 without adequately reviewing the environmental impact.

The Bush administration asked the Supreme Court to decide the matter at a time when the Department of Transportation already has begun to assess the environmental impacts in compliance with the court order. DOT held nine public meetings across the country, among other measures, to gauge the environmental aspects of Mexican truckers. Those environmental reviews are due this summer. The moratorium on Mexico-domiciled trucks began in 1982 under the Reagan administration.

The battle could be more symbolic that economically distressing to U.S.-based carriers. Fewer than 300 Mexican-domiciled carriers have applied for operating authority in this country. Carriers on both sides of the border say there will be no great influx of Mexican carriers operating in this country where more than 625,000 carriers already are registered for DOT operating authority.

Meanwhile, a coalition of nine state attorneys general, Republican House members, and several health, environmental and labor groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the high court to uphold a DOT ruling that all trucks must comply with domestic laws. They say Mexican-domiciled truck fleets are older than U.S. trucks and thus poses a risk of greater air pollution.

The groups are an collection of environmentalists, activists, union interests and even the odd trucking association. They include Public Citizen, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Natural Resources Defense Council, the California Trucking Association and others. Joining the case with amicus briefs were attorneys general for nine states, American Public Health Association, American Lung Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, South Coast Air Quality Management District, California Republican Reps. Mary Bono and Elton Gallegly, Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club.

In their brief, state attorneys general from California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin wrote: "In such states as California, Arizona, and Texas, where the trucks would drive through areas designated as having ''serious,'' ''severe,'' or ''extreme'' ozone pollution, the additional contribution from the trucks would worsen an already critical air pollution problem."

Diesel exhaust has been defined as a carcinogen and already a threat to the public health. The appeals court noted that "a wealth of government and private studies showing that diesel exhaust and its components constitute a major threat to the health of children, contribute to respiratory illnesses such as asthma and bronchitis and are likely carcinogenic."

Because most trucks used to haul freight from Mexico are older and less subject to systematic emissions controls, environmentalists say they would be likely to emit more particulate matter and nitrogen oxides than American vehicles. Fine particulate matter is considered to be a public health problem while nitrogen oxides help to form ozone, which can aggravate asthma and emphysema.

An industry study shows that by 2010 trucks from Mexico likely would emit twice as much of these two pollutants as U.S. trucks.

"An estimated 34,000 trucks from Mexico are expected to go beyond the border zone in the first year," Teamsters union President James P. "Jimmy" Hoffa said in a statement. "It is reckless for the (Bush) administration to ignore the potential health impacts."

The brief further notes that Congress reenacted the prohibition after the appeals court ruled on the case "for an unmistakable reason: to drive home Congress'' intent that cross-border trucking should not take place until FMCSA promulgates rules in full compliance with applicable environmental law." Because such review has not taken place, the Supreme Court should uphold the lower court''s decision, the environmentalists say.

After the April 21 oral argument, the Supreme Court is expected rule by the end of June.