Trucks from Mexico Denied Access to U.S. Highways

Jan. 17, 2003
It's not often that truckers and environmentalists find themselves on the same side of the fence. One thing they both agree on is the need to keep trucks from Mexico out of the country until a full environmental impact study can be completed. The Court of Appeals agrees with them.

Finding that the Bush Administration "acted arbitrarily and capriciously," the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday ruled that the administration violated federal environmental laws by taking steps to give Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways without adequately reviewing the impact they would have on air quality.

The court ordered the administration to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement and Clean Air Act conformity determination.

The court issued the ruling in response to a lawsuit filed in May 2002 by a coalition of environmental, consumer and labor groups including Public Citizen, the Environmental Law Foundation and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

"We've said all along, and the court now agrees, that the Bush administration broke U.S. environmental law in its rush to comply with the flawed NAFTA," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "This is a key decision, because it makes clear that trade agreements like NAFTA do not trump domestic laws. We must be able to respond to public health and safety threats within our borders."

The court remanded the matter to the Department of Transportation so that it could prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement and Clean Air Act conformity determination for all three regulations.

"Although we agree with the importance of the United States' compliance with its treaty obligations with its southern neighbor, Mexico, such compliance cannot come at the cost of violating United States law," the court ruled. "Because we conclude that the Department of Transportation acted without regard to well- established United States environmental laws, we grant the petitions."

"[The] ruling is a victory for the environment and public health. The court has acted decisively to prevent an influx of trucks into the United States until we know how they could affect the air we breathe," said Jonathan Weissglass, an attorney for the petitioners and a partner at Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Rubin & Demain.

According to the ruling, the environmental, consumer and labor groups pointed to a wealth of government and private studies showing that diesel exhaust and its components constitute a major threat to the health of children, contribute to respiratory illnesses such as asthma and bronchitis, and "are likely carcinogenic."

"Trade and environmental protection need not be enemies but here the Bush administration simply ran roughshod over U.S. law," said Al Meyerhoff, a partner with Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach LLP and an attorney for the petitioners. "In doing so, they unnecessarily jeopardized American public health."

The lawsuit claimed trucks from Mexico would dramatically increase U.S. air pollution because:

  • At least 30,000 Mexico-domiciled diesel trucks could enter the U.S. in the next year alone, including many older, pre-1994 trucks that are the most egregious polluters.
  • A study shows, by the year 2010, trucks from Mexico will emit twice as much particulate matter and nitrogen oxides as U.S. trucks. Fine particulate matter is considered to be the largest environmental public health problem in the United States today and nitrogen oxides help form ozone, which can aggravate asthma and emphysema.
  • There is no system in place to systematically inspect the emissions of trucks coming over the border from Mexico.
  • Trucks from Mexico may not be covered by a 1998 settlement between the government and trucking manufacturers that requires U.S. trucks to remove "defeat devices" which enabled them to test clean at inspection sites but run dirty on the open road.

"In a rush to open the border, the administration failed to pay attention to the health concerns of U.S. citizens," said Jim Hoffa, Teamsters general president. "We are pleased that the court recognized the inherent dangers of the department's policy and is enforcing our nation's laws."

The full court opinion can be accessed at

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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