Naked City

Mexican Trucks, Austin's Air

Taking the latest step in its apparent campaign to turn the air we breathe into a concentrated mist of carcinogenic particles, the Bush Administration decided Nov. 27 to allow trucks from Mexico to pass beyond restricted commercial border zones -- ending a 20-year moratorium banning the trucks from U.S. highways. The administration claims it wants to comply with the North American Free Trade Agreement, which contains a provision requiring the U.S. to let the trucks in. But environmental, public interest, and labor groups have filed an emergency injunction to roll back the administration's decision, which U.S. Dept. of Transportation representatives say could put the trucks on U.S. roads by the end of the year. The new regulations were supposed to become effective last May, but a coalition led by Public Citizen, the Environmental Law Foundation, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters filed suit in federal court requesting the government to comply with the Clean Air Act and other rules. The results of that suit are still pending, despite the administration's recent announcement.

According to opposition groups, the White House made its decision without studying the possible health, environmental, safety, and economic impacts the trucks might cause -- possibly endangering the health, lives, and jobs of millions of Americans. Mexican trucks are typically older than their U.S. counterparts and generate more pollution, partly because they aren't required to comply with U.S. regulations. According to the Los Angeles Times, "CANACAR, the largest Mexican trucking association, [reports that] only 30,000 of the 140,000 trucks it represents meet U.S. safety and environmental standards for hauling cargo north of the border." On the labor side, the Teamsters and California Trucking Assoc. worry that cheaper Mexican hauling services threaten the jobs of American truckers.

City staff estimate that over 2,000 trucks currently pass through Austin every day. City Sustainability Officer Fred Blood, who's in charge of Austin's air quality program, says the administration's decision won't make much difference in the short term, but could significantly worsen air quality if the government fails to regulate trucks coming through town from south of the border. Under new rules imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that will take effect in 2004, U.S. diesel engines will have to run more cleanly by being retrofitted with catalytic converters, and using extra-low sulfur diesel fuel, which is less polluting than standard diesel fuel. Under the current rules, Mexican trucks aren't required to take such emissions-reducing steps.

Though Blood considers Capital Metro buses, which also run on diesel fuel, as a greater source of pollution than the standard rig, Cap Metro recently has made moves to reduce its emissions output -- notably through the addition of buses that run on electric power instead of fuel. "I see the light at the end of the tunnel [with Cap Metro]," he says, "but there's no light at the end of the tunnel regarding Mexican rigs." Without additional federal action, he adds, that tunnel could get awfully smoky.

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