Corruption Scandal, Censorship, Wickedness — Or All Three?
|December 31, 2006||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Corruption Scandal, Censorship, Wickedness — Or All Three?
NAFTA Publishes Self-Contradictory Pollution Report
It turns out that NAFTA’s environmental agency does not measure pollution at all, but merely collects possibly-false reports from governments and republishes them — with embarrassing results.
Here is an interesting analysis from the Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada).
Pollution data smell foul in NAFTA report
by Martin Mittelstaedt
NAFTA’s environmental agency is supposed to be a watchdog that alerts North Americans to pollution threats, but it often doesn’t have much of a bark, let alone a bite.
Consider one of its latest findings, an enigmatic discovery about pollution released from the 126 cement plants in Canada and the United States.
In a report being issued July 27, 2006, the Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC) says that U.S. cement plants foul the environment with thousands of tonnes of noxious pollutants such as corrosive hydrochloric acid and birth-defect-causing toluene.
But paradoxically, even though Canadian plants are larger, U.S. plants on average produce 13 times more dangerous chemicals in 2003.
The CEC says it can’t explain why one of the continent’s dirtiest industries pours out pollutants in the United States while claiming far lower levels in Canada. It also concedes that it doesn’t know whether the information it analyzed, compiled by Canadian and U.S. governments from what cement companies report they are releasing, is trustworthy.
“In most cases, it was beyond the scope of this report to investigate how the data were developed or their accuracy. These facts should be kept in mind when attempting to draw conclusions about the differences in environmental performance of the facilities in the different countries,” the CEC says.
The commission’s difficulty in explaining these kinds of pollution problems is being noticed. Those familiar with the workings of the Montreal-based organization say it is being hobbled by government meddling and shrinking budgets that don’t allow it to do its work.
“The CEC was supposed to be the environmental watchdog of North America, and it’s been turned into a house pet by government restrictions and budget cuts,” contends Stewart Elgie, a University of Ottawa professor and environmental law specialist.
Even executive director William Kennedy admits the organization is having troubles, which he attributes to the reason it was created.
Although it isn’t a household name, the commission originated in the early 1990s during the stormy debate over whether a North American free-trade zone was a good idea. There were fears that a trade bloc including Mexico would lead to a so-called race to the bottom for environmental laws, with Canada and the United States gutting rules to compete with a developing country.
To allay these worries, then president Bill Clinton pushed to have a side agreement added to the North American free-trade agreement that would create a pollution watchdog.
But Mr. Kennedy says that the governments never really wanted an environmental agency and created one only because it was “the price to pay” to decrease public opposition to the trade deal.
In a frank admission sent in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Kennedy, whose term expires at the end of next month, says the three countries “have never really embraced the CEC nor realized its potential” and consequently the organization “suffers from the ambivalence of the [countries] toward it.”
The CEC’s signature yearly report on the state of North America’s overall pollution, called Taking Stock, is being released July 27, and besides the head-scratching cement findings, it details how U.S. and Canadian companies created about three million tonnes of pollutants in 2003. Data on Mexican companies for 2003 won’t even be available until 2007.
The worst fears about free trade from the early 1990s haven’t been realized, if the figures in the report are to be trusted. Indeed, there are some positive trends claimed: Pollution at U.S. manufacturing companies declined by 21 per cent between 1995 and 2003, and in Canada by 10 per cent.
Despite these improvements, controversy has been growing over whether the CEC has enough political independence to blow the whistle on pollution that is occurring and to call NAFTA governments to account when they ignore or violate environmental laws.
For instance, the Taking Stock report isn’t a truly independent look at pollution trends at all. Like all of its reports, the CEC allows NAFTA governments to pore over its findings and try to alter them before they are released publicly. This is an unusual practice for an agency that is supposed to alert the public to pollution threats. Prof. Elgie says the governments have “raised an ever-increasing stream of objections and complaints” about CEC reports and try to “sanitize” them.
The agency’s budget, shared equally by the three countries, is also becoming a sore point. The amount has been frozen at $9-million (U.S.) a year since its inception more than a decade ago. Counting inflation and exchange-rate changes, the purchasing power of this sum has fallen by more than 40 per cent. Mexico is sometimes tardy with its payments, although it is currently up to date.
When the CEC was set up, environmentalists thought it would need $30-million to $70-million a year. Now the agency is axing work to cope with the money squeeze.
One program that has just been killed is the CEC’s look at whether children are being harmed by the large releases of cancer-causing compounds — 145,100 tonnes a year from industries — and other pollutants.
Determining whether there is a link between pollution and increasingly common ailments such as asthma and childhood cancer “is a matter that should perhaps be continuing,” Mr. Kennedy said in an interview. “We could do more with more money.”
The CEC also appears to be gun shy about going after important environmental topics that risk irking the NAFTA governments. For instance, even though the trade bloc is the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitter, the CEC doesn’t work on climate change at all.
Critics say the Bush administration blocks such efforts, although Mr. Kennedy denies this.
The most contentious work the CEC has done recently was a report issued in late 2004 on the risks posed to Mexico by genetically modified corn, a touchy topic in the United States, a big corn exporter with the fewest safety laws, and in Mexico, where wild relatives of the staple food risk being genetically contaminated.
The report, written by some of the world’s leading agricultural scientists, recommended a cautious approach to the export of the modified corn, but this advice was [falsely] denounced by the United States as “fundamentally flawed and unscientific.” The United States has been pushing its exports of genetically modified foodstuffs, often getting into trade fights with Europe over the subject.
After being assailed over its corn report, the CEC’s next topic of investigation is virtually guaranteed to offend no one. It’s on energy-efficient buildings.
Mr. Kennedy says “there is a lot of support” by the governments for it. “I think we’ve got a real winner in this topic.”
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