Seattle Press
Local Matters
Asian Industrial Pollution Comes To The Northwest: How Free Is 'Free Trade?'
Pacific Northwest environmental activism has primarily focused on the degradation of the local environment, on industrial pollution, and on the conservation of natural resources. With the development of a global economy and a dependency on industrially produced goods in Asia, much of the industrial pollution has been exported along with the manufacturing jobs, e.g. the steel industry. Indications are now that industrial pollution is returning home as airborne pollutants and has a strong potential for contaminating some of the Northwest's most pristine environments. Advocates of Asian trade should acknowledge this additional responsibility, along with the unfavorable trade balances and the loss of a diverse national economy, as well as the generation of pollution in countries where transnational interests have invested in industrial development.

In a recent report on airborne chemicals polluting British Columbia's waters, a Vancouver Sun article traced the airborne pollutants from Asia to the lakes of the Fraser River watershed. Not long thereafter, another scientific study found air-transmitted pollution, causing increased acidity in the rain of the Olympic Peninsula forests, originating from the same source. Although there is a substantial scientific basis now being developed for determining that the origin of the problem is in the primitive practices of industrially developing countries in Asia, the solution is much more complicated given the economic relationship that the Pacific Northwest has developed with these countries.

Scientists have found the organic pollutants DDT and toxaphene, which are both banned in Canada, in mountain lakes, indicating that they are at great risk. Similar conclusions can be drawn about why the Olympic mountain range, that acts as a buffer for the Puget Sound area, is prone to acid raid.

The Canadian study is extensive in its seven year monitoring of the Fraser River watershed. Tests of the fatty livers of burbot, a freshwater cod, show toxic concentrations well above acceptable limits to full-time fish predators such as osprey and otters, although they are still deemed to be safe levels for human consumption. The University of Washington findings in the Olympics are primarily directed toward determining the acidity caused by the increasing amount of coal burning that provides much of the energy for the booming manufacturing sector in Asia, with the Chinese economy the most aggressive in its industrialization. The apparent lack of success in correcting not only the unbalanced trade practices with China, but also the human rights issues, are swept under the table by local politicians in a policy of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." Given their support of "free trade," both local- and national-level politicians will have difficulty addressing the root causes of the environmental impact of Asian pollution on the Northwest. The demonstrated ability of China to influence U.S. national policy through campaign contributions, and the fact that top-secret military technology has found its way to their military during both Republican and Democratic administrations, makes Al Gore's brand of global environmentalism coupled with a strong advocacy for free trade not very reassuring.

This should be a wake-up call for "free trade" advocates that influence city and state politics as well as politicians who support a 'laissez faire' trade policy with Asian countries. Not only will they be subject to continuing questions surrounding human rights, but also to increasing union and environmental activism. In addition, as Washington State becomes more specialized and dependent on the major exporting industries, sustaining a diverse local economy becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. At the same time, citizens of Washington State are asked to diminish their property rights to save the environment by various bureaucratic and regulatory means, while the lax environmental standards of our trade partners are ignored. A full evaluation of the impact of foreign trade must go beyond the steady propaganda, generated by corporate media, which has become a virtual 'mediaopoly' of news reporting.

"What goes around comes around" is clearly the message from the export/import business, especially when we export industrial pollution to countries that are clearly not able or willing to look after their own populations. The idea that a democratic political system will be able to deal more effectively with the degradation of the natural and cultural environment remains a utopian assumption. If we can't manage our own environment through democratic means, we cannot assume that Communist governments can do better. With the ecological devastation of much of Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia, pollution has been a concern to Europe, and now Asian pollution is becoming our concern. The economic good times based on Pacific Rim "free" trade may, in the not-so-distant future, not seem so "good" or "free."

It is time for City Council members to begin to speak to these issues, especially potential candidates such as Aaron Ostrom, who, along with Richard Conlin, has been actively seeking the environmentalist vote.