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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Cost of Free Trade

Air Date: Week of

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The global economy is now closely woven into the American economy and along the most heavily-traveled trade routes, the ones that link the partners of the free trade system, there’s a health consequence that is just beginning to get noticed. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on one such community.


GELLERMAN: Politicians have been trying to sell free trade for more than a decade now. Back in 1993, that U.S. President Bill Clinton pitched the idea as a rising tide that would lift all boats.

CLINTON: The truth of our age is this and must be this: open and competitive commerce will enrich us as a nation. It spurs us to innovate. It forces us to compete. It connects us with new customers. It promotes global growth without which no rich country can hope to grow wealthier. And so I say to you, in the face of all the pressures to do the reverse, we must compete, not retreat.

GELLERMAN: Ten years later, the global economy is still part and parcel of the U.S. economy, even though the details of free trade are still being debated by trade officials and politicians. But nothing in life is really free. Those who live along the transportation routes that link the global economy are paying a high price in terms of their health. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports.


LOBET: Commerce, California is an old factory town in East L.A. wedged between two major freeways. Gilbert Estrada and Angelo Logan grew up here and learned early how to gauge the age of 18-wheelers and locomotives. Truck cabs and smokestacks defined their landscape. And when he was young, Estrada says he benefited from the taxes industry paid to City Hall.

ESTRADA: The city of Commerce was able to fund a swim team that I was on, water polo teams, traveling throughout America, all paid for. I remember my time as a happy time. It’s only when I got older that I realized I really paid for that through my lungs and my friends who have passed away. I really felt betrayed.

LOBET: Three years ago, officials in southern California shook up Commerce and long time residents like Estrada when they published a report on air quality and cancer in the region. On a map, purple blots covered the area around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and several nearby cities, including Commerce. If you were one of the 80-thousand people living under the blots you had an increased risk of developing cancer from the particulate and soot created by diesel engines.

LOGAN: In this neighborhood we have seen the increase in trucks triple in the last few years.

LOBET: Angelo Logan says thirty-five thousand trucks pass through Commerce each day. And that number is expected to triple over the next 20 years, according to transportation officials. Logan says to get a sense of it, just pull into traffic.


LOGAN: This is the landscape I grew up around.


LOGAN: There’s a hamburger stand that used to have a patio area and now it’s enclosed because of all the black soot they find on the tables.

LOBET: In Commerce, Logan and Estrada can smell how the nation’s economy has shifted. The emissions from abandoned battery plants and metal shops that once dotted the neighborhood have been replaced by a heavy concentration of diesel exhaust. Commerce has gone from an industrial center to a transportation hub for goods – mostly from China – that arrive via the ports at Long Beach and L.A. destined for anywhere USA.

LOGAN: What happens is you see the trucks really ripping down the street, making these turns, everything about how they are trying to get from point A to point B as fast as they can is because – you know, like Domino’s Pizza – you have to make that delivery in a certain time and if you don’t, you’re not making a as much money as you need to be.

LOBET: Logan and Estrada say they understand the pressure to make a living and they know that many independent truckers these days are immigrants who can’t afford the new, cleaner-burning trucks. But recent studies linking diesel exhaust to asthma tell them the cost of free trade is not being evenly distributed.

ESTRADA: I think it would be fair to say that the nation depends on the people of Commerce to sacrifice their lungs so that carton can come from China to the port and we switched off in Commerce’s backyard. So Wal-Mart can sell Pocohontas pajamas in Nevada for $11.96. For a pair of pajamas.

LOBET: Estrada, Logan and their group East Yard Communities lack funding and, until recently, even an office from which to launch their protest. But together with other grassroots groups along LA’s transit corridor they’ve been able to hold off a proposed doubling of a major freeway. It was an effort that surprised L.A.’s mainstream environmental groups, according to Todd Campbell of the Coalition for Clean Air.

CAMPBELL: Many of these individuals are working out of their cars. So for these ragtag – pardon the expression – these ragtag groups that don’t have a lot of financials behind them, to stop the double decking of the 710 freeway, even temporarily, is a tremendous victory and I think a lot of people are taking it as that as well.

LOBET: The work of these environmental justice groups comes as evidence mounts that growing trade has an environmental side effect that’s more heavily felt in some places than others. Last week, the NAFTA-created Commission on Environmental Cooperation issued a report showing thousands of children in Ciudad Juarez on the Mexican side of the Texas-Mexico border are being hospitalized for air pollution-related illness. It cited increased international truck traffic as a likely source. I reached the commission’s air quality program coordinator Paul Miller at his office in Montreal.

MILLER: I think it’s fair to conclude that anyone living near a major corridor where there are a lot of idling trucks waiting to cross the border are at increased risk because of their proximity and the known health effects of things like diesel exhaust. So that kind of finding does give one pause for concern about similar trade corridors throughout North America.

LOBET: Miller says residents are agitating about diesel pollution in several heavily traversed cities in Texas, as well as in Windsor, the Canadian city that sits across the border from Detroit. In response, some localities are requiring cleaner burning diesel fuel. New technologies may help reduce the need for truck and train idling, and a new locomotive with batteries could replace the dirtiest engine used in rail yards.


LOBET: Angelo Logan stands at a railyard fence in Commerce. He says he hopes more people will come to see cargo containers the way his community does – not just as the economy on wheels, but a civil rights issue, too.

LOGAN: Large groups of people are starting to show concern around this. It’s a slow movement but I think the people are coming around. Before you know it, people will be saying “wow, what were we thinking?”

LOBET: For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Commerce, California.





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