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Free trade & fair trade aren’t synonymous

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Anna Roy, Editorial Director

Anna Roy, Editorial Director

The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994 by Mexico, the United States and Canada, this agreement was supposed to tear down ‘barriers’ to trade in order to make trade ‘free’.

And because trade has increased among these three nations, it may seem as though NAFTA is a success.

But, wait, is it really a success? And how do you judge its ‘success’? Is it by profit margins? By the People’s Quality of Life Index, or a combination of both?

An issue that many people have with NAFTA stems from a clause within the treaty. Chapter 11 basically states that a company can sue the government if the company finds any barrier to their access to a ‘free trade’ market. For instance, if an environmental law obstructs a company’s access to profits, then they can sue the government for the loss of these profits in response. And taxpayers end up paying. In all, there have been about 15 lawsuits in all three countries because of Chapter 11.

A specific case that clearly demonstrates why Chapter 11 is so upsetting, is the case brought against the state of California by the Canadian company, Methanex, which manufactures MTBE, a gasoline additive.

It all began in 1996 when the state of California performed tests on California water wells. The test results proved that MTBE was in the water. The problem with MTBE is that it is a carcinogen.

While MTBE was originally added to decrease fumes from gasoline, it turns out that it also seeped into ground water and soil through gas spills and leaking gas tanks.

In response to this scientific study, the state of California decided to phase out MTBE from California gasoline. Methanex, the world’s largest producer of MTBE then decided to suit the state of California for $970 million dollars, under the provisions of Chapter 11, because of their loss of market share and future profits.

They sued the state of California, under Chapter 11, because the California regulation hampered their access to profits. Profits being made by them,thanks to California residents buying their gas, while at the same time risking their health in the process.

What happens next is the decision. If the 3-person tribunal hearing this case decides against the state of California’s decision to phase out MTBE, then California taxpayers foot the bill. Part of ‘footing the bill’ also means that taxpayers will have to pay more to remove MTBE from their water and soil as well as pay more to buy untainted water.

Another probable outcome might be that other states will begin to fear lawsuits from companies, so they stop enacting environmental laws much like California’s.As of today, MTBE is still in our gasoline.

So as a California resident, make sure to look at the little yellow sticker on the gas pump, next time you are filling up. The little yellow sticker which clearly warns that ‘MTBE is a known-carcinogen’ and is added to California gas.

Then, while you drive home, ponder the real benefits of ‘free’ trade, and most importantly, ask yourself, what about our health, what about our water and what about cancer?

I ask myself all the time, ‘why do I personally know 3 people with the disease?’

And make sure to tell your government representatives that the next time a free trade treaty comes along, to be sure and read the fine print.

For more information please visit There is also a documentary with Bill Moyers being shown on PBS.

Anna Roy, a senior international studies major, is editorial director of the Campus Times. She can be reached by e-mail at

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