WASHINGTON - July 7 - Serious safety and environmental concerns must be addressed before the border is open to long-haul Mexico-domiciled trucks, Tom Smitty Smith, director of Public Citizens Texas office, told state lawmakers today.
In testimony before the state Senate Committee on International Relations and Trade, Smith outlined the questions that remain regarding the number of hours that Mexico-based drivers can remain on the road without a break, the insurance carried by Mexico-domiciled carriers, the ability of U.S. inspectors to check trucks and more. The last time the government issued information about the status of these issues was 2002. Given the number of issues and how slowly the federal government has moved in the past, it is important that critical questions be answered before the border is opened for long-haul trucking, Smith said.
A dozen key safety gaps remain, Smith told lawmakers. What the federal government ignores will become a burden for Texans and others around the country.
The government is preparing to open the border in the wake of a June 7 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against Public Citizen and other groups who sued, saying that the border should not be open because the Bush administration failed to consider the environmental impacts of doing so.
Bush issued the order in 2002 after a closed arbitration tribunal established under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ruled that the trade agreement mandated that trucks from Mexico be granted access. The trade tribunal also ruled that special safety measures could be applied to ensure the safety of Mexico-domiciled carriers. Currently, short-haul trucks are allowed to cross from Mexico into the United States and transfer their cargo onto long-haul U.S. trucks. The Bush administrations move would allow Mexico-domiciled carriers to have long-haul access throughout the United States.
Opening the border will affect Texans because of environmental and safety reasons, Smith said. Mexico-domiciled carriers emit substantially more pollutants than U.S.-domiciled trucks, according to research from the Sierra Research, an environmental consulting firm. In the San Antonio-Monterrey trade corridor, a major location for both short- and long-haul operations, truck freight contributes 84 percent of nitrogen oxides and more than 90 percent of carbon monoxide and particulate matter associated with respiratory illnesses. These emissions could affect the ability of cities along the I- 35 and I-10 corridors to meet federal air quality standards.
This is of particular concern for the predominately Latino and other communities along the border and truck routes, which already suffer from the lack of adequate funding to implement U.S. Clean Air Act standards, Smith said.
The state of Texas must ensure that these trucks comply with emissions rules in place at the time of the engines manufacture and that they use low-sulfur fuels provided at stations along major trade corridors. In addition, Texas must take measures to reduce emissions from trucks idling while waiting to cross the border, including educating drivers that engines can be turned off without harm, he said.
Safety concerns are also key, Smith told the committee. These include:
Inspections. Under a law passed by Congress in 2001, the federal government must send inspectors to Mexico to conduct safety reviews. But the U.S. Department of Transportation has been unable to negotiate an agreement to allow U.S. inspectors on-site access.
Insurance. There currently is no way for U.S. border inspectors to know whether a drivers coverage is adequate or lapsed, and insurance violations are the most common violation at the border, meaning that other motorists and localities would be likely to pay out-of-pocket for crashes or hazardous materials spills where Mexico-domiciled trucks are liable.
Compliance with safety rules. Almost a third of Mexico-domiciled carriers failed hazardous materials inspections when checked by Texas authorities in 2002 and 2003.
Border resources. Border truck inspection stations likely remain understaffed and underfunded. The stations lacked staff and equipment two years ago; given the magnitude of the hiring and purchasing that had to be done, state and federal officials must ensure that the facilities are ready for an influx of trucks.
Drug and alcohol testing. Under the 2001 law, agencies within Mexico must be capable of conducting drug tests on drivers. However, no facility for testing in Mexico has been certified to conduct those tests, according to the latest government reports from 2002.
Hours of service. Mexicos law currently has no hours of service limitation for drivers. It is unclear whether Mexican governmental authorities enforce a catch-all law limiting laborers to eight hours and how U.S. border inspectors will ascertain how long drivers have been on the road in Mexico prior to crossing the border.
Databases. Questions remain about the accuracy of Mexican government databases on driver performance. The databases may not contain enough information to detect and address repeat or serious safety violators.
State laws. Many states do not yet have rules enabling state authorities to place Mexico-domiciled trucks out of service for environmental or safety offenses.
The federal government has not yet shown it has addressed these issues and should not open the border until these important questions are answered by the facts, Smith said. If it fails to live up to its promises on safety and the environment, there could be serious consequences for Texans and their neighbors on both sides of the border in the Southwest.
To read Smiths testimony, click here.