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High court mulls Mexican truck access

WASHINGTON -- A Bush administration lawyer told the Supreme Court yesterday that the president must be able to open America's roads to Mexico's trucks without delays for an environmental study.

But a lawyer for labor and environmental organizations cautioned justices that ''we're talking about tens of thousands of trucks" packing US roads after a two-decade moratorium ends.

Some of those trucks are older and may be pollution-causing safety hazards, said the organizations' lawyer, Jonathan Weissglass.

The 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement signed by the United States, Mexico, and Canada allowed Mexican trucks to access US roads eventually. Trucks are limited now to commercial border zones, while the details are being sorted out.

President Bush ordered the opening of all roads to the trucks in 2002, but the dispute has been tied up in the courts.

''It has frustrated the president's ability to comply with NAFTA," justices were told by government lawyer Edwin Kneedler.

He said presidents are ''responsible for foreign relations and foreign trade" decisions and they should not be second-guessed.

The trucks case presents a technical question about rules for agencies that are following a president's orders. The agency in question in this case is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

An appeals court ruled that the agency should have studied the potential short- and long-term effect of trucks on air quality, at a cost of $1.8 million, and ordered the government to conduct the study.

Kneedler said the nationwide analysis was not relevant to the agency's limited role in the border opening.

The study has been underway while the government fights the decision at the Supreme Court.

Several justices said yesterday that it is inevitable that the trucks will be allowed -- regardless of the environmental review's findings.

Weissglass said the study could be used to restrict truck access and better control pollution.

He represents the Teamsters and the consumer group Public Citizen, among others in the case. They are supported by the states of California, Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin.

The Bush administration told justices in a filing that the dispute affects millions of border crossings each year, at a potential cost of billions of dollars to US ally Mexico.

Justice Antonin Scalia raised concerns yesterday about routine actions being held up with requests for environmental studies.

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