NAFTA Cited to Defend Toxic Additive

Methanex Corp. of Canada, a manufacturer of MTBE, a carcinogenic gasoline additive that has been leaking into ground water in California and elsewhere, has filed suit with an international trade tribunal to force California to reimburse the corporation for losses after Gov. Gray Davis ordered a phaseout of the chemical by 2002. Methanex says under the North American Free Trade Agreement, if government carries out the ban it will have to pay the corporation for lost profits estimated at $1 billion.

Robert W. Benson, who teaches international trade and environmental law at Loyola Law School and is co-director of the National Lawyers Guild's Project for Human, Economic and Environmental Defense, wrote June 24 in the Los Angeles Times, "The company's suit would be tossed out of any federal court because under the Constitution, government doesn't have to pay for lost business expectations when it regulates. In fact, Republicans failed to get a 'regulatory takings' bill through the last Congress that would have reversed that rule; opponents pointed out that the fanatical bill would either bankrupt government or force repeal of most regulations.

"Methanex, however, is not in federal court. It is in the quiet, confidential dispute resolution process set up under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The free-trade ideologues who drafted NAFTA saw nothing fanatical about putting a regulatory takings clause into the treaty. Now the price is being paid."

In a case much like Methanex's, the Ethyl Corp. of the United States sued Canada for banning Ethyl's toxic gasoline additive, MMT. Advised that it would lose the NAFTA case, Canada apologized to Ethyl, paid $13 million to settle and repealed its law.

In similar cases, a California company, Metalclad, is suing Mexico for $90 million for the lost business opportunity to run a hazardous waste dump in San Luis Potosi after angry residents objected. S.D. Myers Inc., an Ohio firm that incinerates PCBs, is suing Canada for $20 million in lost business after Canada, as part of an international environmental treaty, forbade shipments of PCBs out of the country. A Canadian funeral business, Loewen Group Inc., is suing the U.S. for $725 million because a Mississippi jury found it had engaged in fraud. The civil court system of Mississippi amounts to an unfair burden on its business, Loewen claims, entitling it to compensation under NAFTA from the U.S. government.

"The regulatory takings clause is but one of numerous provisions in NAFTA assuring that, when trade clashes with the environment or social values, trade always wins," Benson wrote. "The same is true of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the proposed Africa trade bill [which the House approved on July 16] and proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment. The drafters of these documents, ignorant of basic ecological economics, assumed that we would always be better off if trade trumped all other values, including Mother Nature. The environment, labor and human rights are systematically subordinated to trade in all these laws. Thus, under the GATT, we have recently lost challenges to our federal laws on dolphins, sea turtles and dirty imported gasoline."

President Clinton told the World Trade Organization last year that "we must do more to ensure that spirited economic competition among nations never becomes a race to the bottom -- in environmental protections, consumer protections or labor standards." But neither Clinton nor Vice President Al Gore propose to repair the gaping loopholes in the trade treaties.

California Dems Kill Green Bills

Audie Bock's sponsorship of a bill to create a resource center on workplace safety for young people apparently was enough to usher the otherwise uncontroversial bill to a graveyard committee of the California Assembly. Democratic lawmakers simply couldn't allow the nation's first-ever Green Party lawmaker to build a record of accomplishment on which to seek re-election next year.

The labor-supported measure had no organized opposition, it did not require a lot of money -- $250,000 -- and it had support from a broad coalition of employers, labor groups, students and educators. Bock and some Democrats believed the bill would easily win approval. Instead, it was sent to the Assembly Appropriations Committee's "suspense file," where many costly and controversial bills languish.

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles, denied that Democratic leaders plotted to block the measure. "I've got to believe her

legislation is treated no differently from Democratic or Republican legislation," he told the Oakland Tribune. But several Democrats in the Legislature privately told the Tribune that the bill was defeated because party leaders wanted to deny Bock, a 53-year-old single mother and political newcomer who pulled a stunning upset over former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris in March, any accomplishments in her first term.

Already, several Democrats -- including Harris -- have announced they'll seek to challenge her next year in the predominantly Democratic district.

Among Bock's supporters is Dick Floyd, a maverick Democratic Assemblyman from Wilmington who was her seatmate during Bock's first day in the Legislature. The pair were separated the next day because they were getting along too well, Floyd told the Tribune. Floyd said Bock is being stymied by Democrats because her election in a district where Democrats outnumber Greens 49-1 was viewed as a colossal embarrassment. Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, are going out of their way to make Bock look ineffective so she won't have anything to bring back to voters in her district, he said. But it may backfire. "(They're) not damaging her,' he said. "(they're) damaging the voters in that district, the citizens of that district. Not just the voters, the schoolchildren, everybody who resides in that district."

Bock sponsored two bills after she arrived in April following the special election. One was the juvenile workplace safety bill and the other was a measure that would have tightened reporting requirements of toxic dioxin emissions at medical waste incinerator plants. The dioxin measure was defeated on the Assembly floor in a 23-38 vote as 18 Democrats abstained from voting, despite a Democratic Party analysis recommending an "aye" vote on the bill.

"I'm told not to take it personally because everybody gets here and loses two-thirds, three-quarters, ninety percent of what they put forward as bills," Bock told the Tribune. "But on the other hand, I only had two bills. So for me, it was very significant that the choice was made to kill both of them when one had no opposition and the other had opposition only from Republicans."

Prisoners Replace Workers

A South Georgia recycling plant fired workers hired off welfare to sort trash for $5.25 an hour, replacing them with free convict labor, bypassing a Georgia law that prohibits prisoners' taking the place of paid employees. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor acted as an intermediary between the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority to send 36 inmates from the women's prison in Pulaski County to work at the plant eight hours a day, five days a week, sorting recyclables from garbage trucked in from dozens of nearby towns and counties, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported June 19. Ten of the 35 workers who were fired are back on welfare, the paper reported. Taylor said he did not know the inmates would be taking jobs away from Georgians coming off government assistance.

20% Had Difficulty Satisfying Basic Needs

One in five Americans lived in a household whose members had difficulty satisfying basic needs in 1995, according to the Census Bureau.

The report, Extended Measures of Well-Being: Meeting Basic Needs, 1995, takes a look at households who didn't make mortgage or rent payments, failed to pay utility bills and/or had service shut off, didn't get enough to eat, needed to see a doctor or dentist but didn't or otherwise could not meet essential expenses.

"For most of those who had difficulty meeting a basic need in 1995, it was not an isolated incident," said report author Kurt Bauman. "More than half (54 percent) experienced more than one of these problems."

More than one-third (18.1 million) of all people living in households with unmet basic needs were children (under 18 years old).

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