Monday, March 8, 2010

The Precautionary Principle (March 7, 2010)

In 1945 the first studies came out about the danger of cigarettes. By 1954 we had epidemiological information linking smoking to cancer, we knew that the more you smoke, the more your chance of getting cancer increases, but we didn’t know how it was that smoking caused cancer. It wasn’t until the 1990s when science figured out that mechanism by which smoking causes cancer, that we had enough science necessary to effect law. 45 years passed there between when we had our first evidence that cigarettes probably were dangerous and when science could prove it for sure. In that time 2 generations of Americans got hooked on cigarettes, and too many died.

The precautionary principle is the radical idea that if you have some early warning signs something might be dangerous, you should act with caution. It sounds like something your grandmother might say, doesn’t it? “Better Safe than sorry” or “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” And, in fact, it comes from an old German word “Vorsorgeprinzip” or “Forecaring” It was first used in environmental law in Germany in the 1970s when the Black Forest was dying, and folks were concerned it might be connected to acid rain caused by power plant emissions. Germany developed environmental law and policy which could help prevent further sickening of the forests, and which encouraged development of new alternatives which would be safer. This principle of forecaring (or as it came to be known in English, “The Precautionary Principle”) was part of the dialogue in the "Earth Summit" of 1992, and is one of the principles of the Rio Declaration. It came to be used in the legal code of many countries, including the European Union.

The Wingspread conference of 1998 was convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) specifically to formalize the precautionary principle, and imagine how it could be applied. Their statement of the principle is as follows:

"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

"In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

"The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action."

That all sounds kind of like common sense, doesn’t it? So what is the context in which a principle like “better safe than sorry” is cutting edge environmental thinking? Because current environmental laws are set up with a “risk assessment” premise, which became standard practice in the United States in the mid-1980s and was institutionalized in the global trade agreements of the 1990s. When the San Francisco City and county was researching the Precautionary Principle, they wrote a white paper which summed up Risk assessment in this way:

“Risk assessments present numbers that purport to show how much harm might occur. In a second step, policy makers attempt to decide how much harm is acceptable… however, risk assessment…does not prompt decision makers to ask whether alternatives exist that would substantially reduce risk.”

“For example, a risk assessment may attempt to define how many children will suffer developmental disorders or cancer after playing with a plastic toy that leaches chemicals of poorly understood toxicity. With this risk assessment in hand, policy makers may then attempt to define how many diseased children (one in 10,000? 100,000?) would be acceptable. This process provides no opportunity to examine an alternative option, in which toys are only made from materials known to be safe for children.”

So the precautionary principle creates a different paradigm for handling materials or processes that might be risky. It can be boiled down to 3 elements: uncertainty, harm, and precautionary action Whenever there is a threat of harm, but there is still scientific uncertainty, we can act with precaution. The principle also has something to say about the nature of that action- and this is an important change as well. It’s not the public who should bear the burden of proof, it’s the “proponent of the activity,” say the company which produces the plastic toy or the chemicals in question, to prove that the products really are safe.

Opponents of the Precautionary principle say that it will bring progress to a standstill. But the principle itself doesn’t tell us that we can’t act, only that caution is advised. The Envrinomental Research Foundation recommends a few steps for applying precaution that is, infact, action oriented. IT starts with setting goals, then look at all the reasonable ways of achieving those goals. They say “ Assume that all projects or activities will be harmful, and therefore seek the least-harmful alternative”...and further that we should “Expect reasonable assurances of safety for products before they can be marketed -- just as the Food and Drug Administration expects reasonable assurances of safety before new pharmaceutical products can be marketed.” And during this process, we need to make sure that all of us who are effected will be part of the process. So if you are building a power plant or a sewage treatment plant in my neighborhood, we would make sure you are using the safest processes, and that my neighbors and I get to be involved in an open democratic process.

As UUs, we like a good open, informed, democratic process, it’s right there in our 5th principle “use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” We like to protect our world, that’s in our principles too “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” The Precautionary Principle also sounds like part of a “Free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It is a principle that would seem to resonate with our own values. I think the part that might be hard for UUs is the idea that we can act (or choose not to act) before the science is conclusive. After all, the 5th sources of our living tradition is “the guidance of reason and the results of science” and here I am saying that “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” should have legal precedence over conclusive scientific data?

Well, one thing about science is that new things are learned and proven and dis-proven every day. Theologically speaking, science is part of our Unitarian Universalist belief that revelation is ongoing. We believe new truth is constantly coming into our awareness, and that it will go on being revealed forever. We don’t want to act as if we know everything now, because we believe we will know more later.

A 2001 report written by the European Environment Agency recalled some of the worst examples of misplaced certainty about the safety of certain risks, a certainty which caused us to overlook early warning signs. They include such examples as radiation, ozone depletion, asbestos, and Mad Cow disease, concluding that: “Misplaced ‘certainty’ about the absence of harm played a key role in delaying preventive actions.”

So why can’t we be more certain about the effects of such tings? Because “serious, evident effects such as endocrine disruption, climate change, cancer, and the disappearance of species can seldom be linked decisively to a single cause. Scientific standards of certainty may be impossible to attain when causes and outcomes are multiple; latent periods are long; timing of exposure is crucial; unexposed, “control” populations do not exist; or confounding factors are unidentified.” So the precautionary principle doesn’t ask us to reject science, just acknowledges that the scientific process is time consuming and that as in the case of the dangers caused by cigarettes, complete proof may not be ready in time to prevent harm. So let’s take grandma’s advice and be “better safe than sorry.”

Right now our community and our neighbor’s communities are embarking on a great adventure- that of horizontal drilling in the Marcellus Shale. How could we use the precautionary principle in these last few moments before we leap? In Colorado, the City of Grand Junction and the nearby town of Palisade “were concerned about risks to surface water from construction of roads, well pads and pipelines, as well as storm water runoff and spills of drilling fluids, fracking chemicals and brine. They were also concerned about the potential for groundwater contamination.” After 2 years of talks, the towns were able to negotiation a watershed protection plan with Genesis Gas and Oil. “Not only does their watershed plan include baseline studies of sources water, it also requires closed-loop drilling, emergency response plans and a commitment to using “green” hydraulic fracturing procedures, processes and materials. This means that any chemicals used in the watershed area will be ‘biodegradable, nontoxic, neutral pH, residual free, non-corrosive, non-polluting and non-hazardous in the forms and concentrations being used.’”

I found this really heartening, to learn that less toxic alternatives are available – since some of the chemicals used in the hydro-fracking fluids, and in the flowback water from drilling are known carcinogens or endocrine disruptors, and more than 40,000 gallons of fracking fluids can be used in a single well. Companies like Frac Tech are using orange citrus to replace some solvents, and palm oil in place of a slicking agent that is prohibited in Europe but still allowed in the US. Beginning in 2003, many companies have replaced Diesel as a common ingredient in fracking fluid with mineral oil in response to pressure from the EPA. Apparently less toxic alternatives not only exist, but are required for the fracturing fluids used in offshore drilling. “Both European law and the regulations of the U.S. Minerals and Management Services dictate that chemicals used in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico must be safe enough that they won't kill fish and other organisms if they are dumped overboard. 'You can always do it,' said BJ Services' Dunlap, whose company has been a leader in innovating sustainable materials. But, Dunlap said, the chemistry costs more, and is justifiable to his shareholders only because the regulations for offshore drilling left no choice." (Pro Publica)

Let’s get back to the precautionary principle- if we had really taken a good look at the hydro-fracking process - if we had looked before we lept, and if finding the least harmful solution had been a goal, I wonder if some of the horror stories we hear from towns like Dimmick PA could have been prevented. If we had used the precautionary principle and sat down with all involved parties in an open democratic fashion and found the examined the full range of alternatives, I have to imagine that Dimmick residents would not be in litigation today, trying to prove that the chemicals now in there drinking water are there as a result of hydro fracking.
What if folks in our communities became as pro-active as those towns in Colorado? What if we sat down with neighbors and gas companies and discussed the alternatives? Currently Hydro-fracking is exempt from both clean air and clean water acts, so there is nothing in the law to require gas companies to use the least harmful methods. But what if now, at the start of the drilling in our region, we negotiated the least harmful way to do this drilling here in our eco-system, in our watershed, in our human community? Said Michael Freeman, an attorney for Earth Justice: “there is no escaping some damage from drilling. But if the best available precautions were routinely followed, environmental harm could be minimized and the industry may face less resistance from the public as it taps the vast new gas deposits that have been discovered in recent years”

Hydro-fracking is a complex process that will have many different impacts on the eco-systems and communities it inhabits. I have focused here only on fracking fluid, but there is also the flow back fluid, and the emissions that will effect our air. And while we have some information about each of these chemicals taken on their own, the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) on the drilling says there is not good information about long term non-lethal and interlocking effects. Current environmental law says that if science can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that hydro-fracking can be document to have caused harm, they can use these processes until it is proven conclusively. 50 years it took the cigarette industry. We can’t afford to wait that long to slow down a process that might be harmful, and that certainly involves chemicals that have been proven harmful in other situations. And of course there are effects beyond the toxins- How will the fracking impact the geology and seismic activity? How do new industries impact local economies, effect things like housing and municipal infrastructure? Our Shale Network group had 4 pages full of impacts we thought bore further exploration before we finally had to bring our list to a close when we ran out of paper and time.

Natural Gas drilling is a reality in Bradford County, but we are just at the beginning of what will current estimates project to be a 25-50 year process. Now is the time for the Precautionary Principle, for a little forecaring. Now is the time for an ounce of prevention. If we think there could be a risk of harm to the eco-system, to our drinking water, to our land, let’s slow down, bring together all the involved parties, and seek out the alternatives that will do the least harm. Like mom always said, “better safe than sorry.”


WHITE PAPER: The Precautionary Principle and the City and County of San Francisco March 2003.

“Science & Environmental Health: Carolyn Raffensperger”


Tompkins weekly, v. 4 No. 15 “Proposed Well Draws Concern” by Sue Smith-Heavenrich

"Underused Drilling Practices Could Avoid Pollution" by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica - December 14, 2009 12:00 am EST

Rachel’s Environment & Health News #770 “Environmental Justice and Precaution” by Peter Montague

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