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Latest NAFTA Talks Raise Environmental Concerns, Including Possible Coal Exports From Longview

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
In this May 12, 2005, file photo, the Port of Longview is visible on the Columbia River at Longview, Wash., the site of Millennium Bulk Terminals' proposed coal facility, which would handle up to 44 million tons of coal a year, arriving by train.

The renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, is raising concerns among environmentalists.

The Sierra Club has released a report, NAFTA 2.0: For People or Polluters? It outlines issues with the current trade deal and proposed solutions.

Talks have intensified in recent weeks with President Trump seeking to fulfill election promises. Mexico also has elections soon. News reports say a new NAFTA deal could be ready within a few weeks.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Seattle’s 7th District, has taken a leadership role in monitoring the talks. She is First Vice Chair of the 78-member CongressionalProgressive Caucus, which she says has been working for a fair NAFTA re-negotiation.

Speaking on a press conference call about theSierra Club report, she said a re-write of NAFTA needs to acknowledge current shortcomings and do more for fair trade that is worker-friendly. At the same time, she said it needs to take the limited resources in the natural environment into account and curb pollution while promoting cleaner energy.              

“It was written before there was a broad awareness of climate change and so climate change was not even part of the conversation at the time. And as a result I think what you’ve seen over the last two decades is that it has been corporations and not people who have been reaping the benefits of NAFTA.”

Among the concerns about the re-write is a potential loss of local authority over environmental standards, contained in a proposed new chapter on “Competitiveness.”  

Jayapal called that proposal “a bit of a sneak attack...drafted by fossil fuel lobbyists, called streamlining, but not really about streamlining, more about undermining environmental reviews for coal export terminals and other polluting projects."   

She says the provision has the potential to overturn key permitting decisions, for example for the proposed coal export terminal in Longview, which has been rejected by local authoritiesfour separate times because of environmental concerns. 

She also mentioned the recent use of NAFTA as a threat against Washington state’s ban on net pen farming of Atlantic salmon as an aspect of the treaty that goes against local values.

Others have observed similar threats coming from Texas-based Kinder Morgan as it negotiates whether to continue with the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipelinethat brings Canadian tar sands oil to the coast of the Salish Sea.

In both cases, corporations are threatening to sue governments for millions or billions of dollars under NAFTA.

Ben Beachy, one of the authors of the Sierra Club report, says part of the problem is these trade talks take place behind closed doors, and outsiders like them are denied access to important documents.

“Meanwhile, over 500 advisors are given direct input onto what the U.S. proposals for the deal should be. And that includes an array of fossil fuel executives. So they get to see what’s on the table and we do not,” he said.

If built, the Longview terminal would handle up to 44 million tons of coal a year, coming by train mainly from the Powder River basin in Montana and Wyoming.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead visited Washington in 2014 to pitch the project. Supporters say it would create good jobs, add tax revenue and boost the local economy.

This week,Cowlitz County filed a request to a submit a “friend-of-the-court” briefin support of a federal lawsuit against Gov. Jay Inslee's administration for blocking Millennium Bulk Terminals' permits. An appeal of the permit denialis pending in court.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to