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NAFTA reform needed to protect environment

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: July 30, 2008 9:31 p.m.
Updated: October 1, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Recently SCOPE voted to support Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon’s HR 5887 legislation to buy out the Cemex mine lease. Such an action is certainly no surprise.

We have spent many years encouraging preservation of the watershed of the Santa Clara River so the public can continue to enjoy its many benefits. The Cemex mine proposal and its ensuing impacts to our air and water quality, water supply and wildlife habitat have long been an area of concern to our members.

However, our support was qualified on the removal of the following clause:

“Credits that may be applied against future royalties, bonus bids or rental fees for the Federal lands administered by the Secretary and located within the State of California, including leases for all submerged lands of the outer Continental Shelf.”

Offshore drilling
This language seems to support drilling for oil on the outer continental shelf in the oceans of California. We do not support further oil drilling on California’s ocean outer shelf.

Some have argued that this is just “standard” language. But even so, why would anyone want to give a blank check for oil drilling to a company like Cemex? It seems very inappropriate to give this international company, whose damage to the Santa Clara River and the community of Santa Clarita already will not be subject to environmental regulation due to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a further blank check to potentially damage our California beaches, coastline and ocean.

It is our understanding that the proposed properties in the Victorville area will more than compensate for the cost payments to Cemex to buy out its lease, so we asked Congressman McKeon to remove this portion of the bill.

We also asked him to take another look at NAFTA and support reforming this legislation from the 1990s.

As everyone knows, Cemex is not a local or even a U.S. company. It is a company headquartered in Mexico, and therefore it operates under NAFTA.

Because of this fact, this international company can ignore many of the environmental problems that it would create in Santa Clarita by the exercise of its mining lease. Without the ability to require mitigation or redress, such impacts to our community are not acceptable.

Growing threat to environment
Environmental degradation allowed under NAFTA is not only a problem in the U.S., but is being perpetrated by international corporations under the guise of “free trade” all over the world.

Here are several other examples of environmental threats created by NAFTA:

n A NAFTA tribunal has ordered Mexico to pay $16 million in damages after a local government there denied a permit to a U.S. company to operate a toxic waste dump.

The local community says the dump threatens its water supply, yet the NAFTA tribunal ignored the community’s rights under the Mexican Constitution to refuse a permit for the dump. If this precedent takes hold, NAFTA tribunals could soon be running roughshod over the constitutional rights of American state and local governments.

n A Canadian funeral home chain has sued for $750 million after a jury in Mississippi found the company guilty of defrauding customers. If this company wins, the precedent could threaten our domestic system of civil courts, essential to citizen enforcement of our clean air and clean water laws; and

n Canada was ordered to pay $50 million to a U.S. toxic waste handler after the government refused to export hazardous PCBs for incineration in the company’s Ohio facility.

The NAFTA tribunal in this case simply ignored the fact that Canada was attempting to comply with an international treaty which prohibits trans-boundary shipment of hazardous wastes.

Originally, NAFTA’s investor rules were intended to protect U.S. investors in other countries from the seizure of their assets by host governments. In practice, the rules expose virtually all domestic environmental laws — pollution controls, smart growth programs and land conservation rules — as potential NAFTA violations.

NAFTA investor rules throughout the western hemisphere are slowing environmental progress and could grind to a halt as taxpayers at home and abroad are forced to pay billions of dollars in damage claims to global corporations such as Cemex.

Due to such pervasive problems worldwide, as well as the immediate negative effect that NAFTA is having on our community’s ability to effectively deal with the Cemex mine impacts, SCOPE’s board requests that your office support a much needed reform of NAFTA to address these problems.

Such a reform should include the following:
n Investor rules should ensure that global corporations have no greater rights than U.S. citizens have under U.S. law.

n New rights for global businesses should be matched with enforceable responsibilities on workers rights and environmental protection.

n Rules on trade in services should include meaningful exceptions for public interest laws and should exclude such vital public services as water supply.

n Food trade agreements should include provisions requiring the adoption of the highest safety standards on farms and in processing plants.

Again, many of the issues and problems that would occur from the Cemex mine lease are a result of the inability of local and state governments to deal with international companies under NAFTA.

Public buyouts
Now the only way to deal with these impacts under NAFTA is the buyout of leases at huge expense to the public. This buyout is being requested at a time when taxpayers are already financially pressed.

However, we believe that the health costs and damage to our water supply by this mining lease would far outweigh the cost of buying out the lease. Therefore, we support this legislation with the exception as stated above.

Reform of NAFTA should help to eliminate these problems, ensuring that environmental issues are addressed and thus saving taxpayers millions of dollars to buy out leases such as those owned by Cemex when that becomes the only means to address environmental impacts.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily that of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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