TORONTO, Ontario, Canada - An international coalition of academics, environmental, and conservation groups today called on the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada to "stop interfering" with the tri-national Commission for Environmental Cooperation, CEC, particularly its core citizen complaint procedure.
The 20 groups and individuals say in their letter to the top environmental officials of the three countries that the citizen submission process "has reached a critical point with its future threatened by ongoing political interference."
"We are deeply concerned by increasingly blatant government interference in the operations of this important environmental watchdog," said Albert Koehl, lawyer with Ecojustice, Canada's largest environmental law organization.
Based in Montreal, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation was established in 1994 in a side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, to address fears that NAFTA would prompt businesses to leave the United States because of lax environmental enforcement elsewhere.
The Commission was the first of its kind in the world in linking environmental cooperation with trade relations.
The side agreement includes a provision allowing citizens to request investigations into a country's failure to enforce its own environmental laws.
The Citizen Submissions on Enforcement Matters mechanism enables the public to play an active whistleblower role when a government appears to be failing to enforce its environmental laws effectively.
Members of the public trigger the process by submitting to the CEC a claim alleging such a failure on the part of any of the NAFTA partners.
After a review of the submission, the CEC may investigate the matter and publish a factual record of its findings, subject to approval by the CEC Council, which consists of the top environment official in each of the three NAFTA countries.
While, all appears calm and cooperative on the surface, the groups allege that the three governments are undermining the work of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation by obstructing its investigations and limiting their scope.
"When the CEC was established, we saw it as a novel and promising model for other trade agreements," said U.S. Professor John H. Knox of Wake Forest University School of Law. "It's sad that this promise is being squandered by our leaders to avoid the small fallout of scrutiny that comes from citizen complaints."
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In their letter to the members of the CEC Council - Canadian Environment Minister John Baird, U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, and Mexican Environment Secretary Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada - the coalition alleges that they are not only limiting the scope of CEC investigations to a narrow set of facts, but also that they are taking too long to address serious environmental issues that can distort trade relations at the expense of the environment.
Among the total of 23 factual records that have been recommended since the CEC was established, the complainants point out three that have been subject to long delays that they say are due to political interference - one in each of the three NAFTA countries.
- United States: Coal-fired power plants (SEM 04-005): There has been no vote to date on a factual record recommended in December 2005 relating to an allegation that the U.S. EPA is failing to enforce its Clean Water Act against power plants for mercury emissions contaminating shared water bodies.
- Mexico: Lake Chapala II (SEM 03-003): There has been no vote to date on a factual record recommended in May 2005 relating to an allegation that Mexico is failing to enforce environmental laws to protect the Lerma-Chapala-Santiago-PacÃƒÂfico basin.
- Canada: Ontario Logging (SEM 02-001 and SEM 04-006) and Pulp and Paper (SEM 02-003): It took seven months before approval was given by the CEC in February 2007 the release of factual records, even though votes on publication are normally required within 60 days.
"The failure to make decisions discourages public participation and, since Council communication usually takes place behind closed doors, promotes public distrust and suspicion," the coalition says in its letter."The CEC's watchdog role is a small price to pay by our governments for a measure of credibility to their assertions that NAFTA respects the environment and other social values," said Gustavo Alanis of the Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental in Mexico City, a coalition member.
"It's too bad our governments are so short-sighted that they can't bear even this small amount of scrutiny," he said.
The coalition's call to the NAFTA parties to halt political interference coincides with a three-day CEC symposium and public forum on environment and trade issues in Phoenix, Arizona that winds up today with a public forum focusing on how well NAFTA is addressing environmental issues.
It also coincides with the two-day North American leaders summit in New Orleans that ended Tuesday with a pledge to "redouble efforts to address climate change" by the leaders of the three NAFTA countries - Prime Minister Stephen Harper, President George W. Bush, and President Felipe Calderon.
The three leaders also agreed to "implement compatible fuel efficiency regimes and high safety standards to protect human health and the environment" in the auto industry; upgrade border crossing systems with more uniform procedures; and install advanced screening equipment at ports of entry to deter and detect the smuggling of nuclear and radiological materials.
They agreed to make food and product safety standards more compatible.
The three leaders agreed to develop a framework for harmonization of energy efficiency standards, and sharing technical information to improve the North American energy market.
They agreed to reduce barriers to expanding clean energy technologies, especially carbon dioxide capture and storage to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. "We are working to better North America's air quality and working together to improve the safety of chemicals in the marketplace," the three leaders said.
They did not say they would work to remove political interference from the core citizen complaint process of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
The coalition says the failure to consider all the facts and the failure to act promptly to resolve environmental problems "undermine the legitimacy of NAFTA" and "the principles of environmental accountbility, transparency, and public participation" that the environmental side agreement was intended to bring to the NAFTA arena.
© Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008