WASHINGTON, Aug. 13, 1992 (UPI) - President Bush's environmental chief responded to critics of the North American Free Trade Agreement Thursday, saying the pact ensures compliance with tough U.S. environmental laws and encourages all three countries to increase environmental protection.
''If Congress does not ratify NAFTA, it will be the environmental mistake of the decade,'' said Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly at a news conference.
While details of the agreement, which wipes out customs barriers and opens markets among the United States, Canada and Mexico, remain to be worked out, President Bush said Wednesday it would bring about a free flow of labor and capital among the three nations while including ''stringent provisions to benefit the environment.''
Reilly said the United States, Canada and Mexico each can deny entry to products failing to meet national environmental standards and individual states can enact tougher restrictions.
''NAFTA includes a voluntary process to make environmental standards more compatible, but that process will not lead to lower U.S. standards, '' he said, adding that the treaty encourages ''harmonizing upward'' or making disparate standards tighter instead of less restrictive.
Reilly also said Mexico's government had increased spending for environmental protection from less than $7 million to nearly $80 million in 1992 and had taken strong steps to enforce its existing regulations.
Environmentalists said the NAFTA could make it easy for U.S. companies to relocate in Mexico to take advantage of poor environmental enforcement. Reilly said he did not think that would happen.
''On several fronts we have reasonable assurance that companies won't take advantage of lax standards,'' Reilly said. ''There is a provision in the treaty addressing pollution havens.''
An EPA statement said a study concluded the removal of trade barriers across the U.S.-Mexico border would not create a ''pollution haven'' in Mexico because ''pollution abatement costs represent a small share of total production costs in most industries.''
Much of the environmental concern involves ''maquiladora'' plants, U.S.-owned facilities in the border areas of Mexico. Such plants import materials from the United States for manufacturing by less costly labor in Mexico. They also avoid tough U.S. environmental regulation.
Maquiladoras are second in importance only to Mexico's oil industry in terms of their potential to earn much-needed foreign exchange.
The environmental consequences of the plants -- both from the congestion and development they generate and from actual toxic emissions -- endanger border areas of both the United States and Mexico. Drinking water supplies in some areas have been contaminated, increasing disease and other problems.
Experts from both the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club said Mexico's environmental laws were good but lacked meaningful enforcement.
''The pact ... omits an enforcement and funding strategy needed to improve environmental conditions along the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the continent,'' said John Adams, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Fund.