By Kim Todd
In the mid-1990s, a clear liquid that smelled like turpentine began to seep from underground storage tanks into drinking water wells in Santa Monica, Calif. Soon more than half the wells were contaminated, forcing the city to close them and buy water from Los Angeles.
The substance was MTBE, a gasoline additive designed to reduce air pollution. But it was showing up in more and more of California's water sources, including Lake Tahoe. Reacting to citizen outcry, Gov. Gray Davis banned it.
A triumph for local activism? Not this time. Enter NAFTA.
Methanex, the Canada- based company that manufactures MTBE, sued the state of California, under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which allows private companies to sue governments. If Methanex convinces a NAFTA tribunal that California's ban cost the company profits, taxpayers may owe Methanex $1 billion.
Stories like this make Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, all the more concerned about the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. This NAFTA-like agreement is supposed to relax trade restrictions in North, South and Central America and the Caribbean. But many of these restrictions are hard-won environmental laws, according to May.
"We don't need a trade deal that undermines environmental protection from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego," she said.
At a meeting dubbed "The Summit of the Americas," scheduled April 20-22 in Quebec City, leaders from 34 countries will negotiate details of the proposed FTAA.
In response, activists - including a contingent from the Sierra Club - are planning to meet them in Quebec City with a protest, demanding that negotiations be exposed to public scrutiny and give adequate consideration to health, human rights and environmental concerns. For those who can't make it to Quebec, the Sierra Club will be organizing teach-ins and rallies across the United States and Canada.
The draft version of the FTAA agreement is still under wraps, prompting a campaign to "Free the Text" and bring details of the deal into the open. The fact that it's hidden is reason to be suspicious, according to Ben Gore, chair of the Sierra Student Coalition's international committee.
"If this was a good agreement, they wouldn't be keeping it secret from us, they'd be trumpeting it from the ramparts," Gore said.
The primary concern is an extension of NAFTA's Chapter 11, the provision that allowed Methanex to sue. Other companies have also taken advantage of the rule. In 1998, Canada paid $13 million to settle a suit with Ethyl Co., a Virginia company that produces MMT, a fuel additive the Canadian government attempted to ban. And last August, a NAFTA tribunal ruled the Mexican government should pay Metalclad, a California-based company hoping to operate a hazardous-waste treatment plant, $16.9 million because local activists stopped the plant from opening.
It's a trend that May hopes won't spread via the FTAA.
"These Chapter 11 cases are really piling up, and they establish the way in which trade agreements are replacing the decisions of sovereign, democratically elected governments with corporate rule," she said.
The largest Quebec event - a confluence of demonstrations, teach-ins and street theater - is scheduled for April 21, Sierra Club founder John Muir's birthday. Earlier in the week, the Club will host a day of educational workshops focusing on the impact of trade deals on forests, energy and toxic waste. Sierra Student Coalition leaders are planning a communications training before the protest, helping activists get their message across in language that both the media and the public will respond to.
For those who want to join the protest, the Sierra Club of Canada will help find transportation and housing. Most important, said May, "We'll teach activists the French translation of 'don't pepperspray me.' "
Rally in Quebec City. For help with logistics, contact the Sierra Club of Canada at (613) 241-4611; email@example.com with "Attention: FTAA" in the subject line. If you are a student and would like to meet up with the SSC, call Ben Gore at (802) 443-4150.
To organize a teach-in or rally in your community, contact dan.seligman@sierra club.org
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