Friday, January 17, 2003
Ninth Circuit Halts Bush Plan to Open Highways to Mexican Trucks
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The U.S. government must complete an environmental review before opening highways to trucks from Mexico, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling follows a request by a coalition of environmental, labor and trucking industry groups for an emergency stay of President Bush’s decision to open the highways to Mexican trucks beyond the 20-mile commercial border zones where Mexican rigs transfer their cargo to U.S. trucks. Those trucks then carry those loads to points within the United States.
The president in November ordered that the highways be opened to Mexican trucks to bring the United States into compliance with the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“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,” wrote Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw for the three-judge panel.
The coalition, which had sued the government in April to stop the trucks from operating in the United States, said the Department of Transportation did not adequately review the impact the trucks would have on air quality north of the border.
Jonathan Weissglass, attorney for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters that was part of the coalition, said Mexican trucks are, on average, older than American trucks and therefore typically more polluting.
Also, he said, while U.S. and Mexican air standards for diesel trucks are currently the same, the U.S. regulations are scheduled to become more stringent in 2004 and 2007, while Mexico’s are not.
“This is great,” he said. “It really is a resounding victory for the environment.”
Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said the government was reviewing the decision.
“We have made no determination as to what our next step will be,” he said.
No trucks have crossed beyond the commercial border zone so far, but the department has received almost 170 applications for that, said Department of Transportation spokesman Dave Longo. The trucks have not been allowed beyond that zone because the government has not yet completed safety audits.
A 1982 moratorium banned Mexican trucks from the United States.
The court earlier had ordered the government to give notice when it takes steps to give trucks full access to the highways.
The ruling rests on the interplay between NAFTA and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. NEPA requires environmental impact reports for a variety of large projects and policy changes to assure that there will be no unexpected impact on the air, water or land.
The Bush Administration’s plan to open U.S. highways to Mexican trucks in fulfillment of requirements under NAFTA was to be accomplished by way of three regulations. The Department of Transportation prepared a preliminary environmental assessment under two of the regulations, then determined there was no need for further environmental analysis.
The plaintiffs’ coalition included the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Brotherhood of Teamsters Auto and Truck Drivers Local 70, the California Labor Federation, the California Trucking Association, the Environmental Law Foundation, the National Resources Defense Council and the Planning and Conservation League.
Wardlaw said the court had to give proper deference to the NAFTA, but said there was a limit.
“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,” the judge said.
“We hold that the Department of Transportation acted arbitrarily and capriciously in failing to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Protection Act, as well as the conformity determination under the Clean Air Act,” Wardlaw wrote.
The case is Public Citizen v. Department of Transportation, 02-70986.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company