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#319 - The Year In Review -- Toxics, Part 2: The Year The World Turned The Corner, 05-Jan-1993

The most important news of 1992 went largely unreported in the U.S. At
a Ministerial Meeting September 21-22 in Paris, 13 European nations
agreed, in principle, to eliminate all discharges and emissions of
chemicals that are toxic, persistent and likely to bioaccumulate (that
is, to concentrate in food chains). In short, these 13 nations made a
binding commitment to try to achieve "zero discharge" of persistent
toxic substances. Thus for the first time, a significant portion of the
industrialized world (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany,
Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and
the United Kingdom) concretely rejected the old philosophy of "prove
harm" as a basis for pollution control. A new era of environmental
protection has truly begun.

Consider the difference. The old philosophy protection (which still
governs in the U.S.) says, "Everyone is free to dump toxic materials
into the environment until someone can prove harm to a scientific
certainty. After harm is proven beyond doubt, then we can begin to
consider taking action to stop the dumping." This approach REQUIRES
harm to occur before control can begin. All U.S. pollution-control laws
are based on this old approach.

Three key assumptions underlie the old approach:

1) Assumption No. 1: humans can "manage" the environment by deciding
how much of any material the Earth (or any portion of the Earth) can
safely absorb without harm. Scientists call this the "assimilative
capacity" approach. According to this approach, scientists can reliably
decide how much of any material the Earth, or any portion of the Earth
(such as a the Mississippi River or Chesapeake Bay), can assimilate or
absorb without causing harm. (This is what every "risk asssessment"
claims to do.)

2) Assumption No. 2: Once the Earth's "assimilative capacity" for a
particular chemical has been decided, then we can and will see to it
that no greater amount is permitted to escape. We will set limits,
river by river, factory by factory, chemical by chemical, everywhere on
the planet, so that the total, cumulative releases to not exceed the
"assimilative capacity" of the Earth.

3) Assumption No. 3: We already know which substances are harmful and
which are not; or, in the case of substances that we never suspected
are harmful, we will be warned of their possible dangers by traumatic
but sub-lethal shocks that alert us to the danger before it is too
late.[1]

ALL THREE ASSUMPTIONS ARE DEAD WRONG. As a result, the well-being of
the planet, and of humans, are reeling from this approach now. Think of
ozone depletion (RHWN #285), global warming (RHWN #300, #301) and acid
rain; lead poisoning in our children (RHWN #213, #214, #294); mercury
in fish (RHWN #291); PCBs in the oceans (RHWN #295); rising cancer
rates (RHWN #222, 265, 266); increases in immune system disorders like
asthma (RHWN #218); rising rates of nervous system disorders like
Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's disease (RHWN #318). Even government
scientists are now concluding that these are real evidence of real
harm, caused by our "innocent until proven guilty" approach toward
chemicals (RHWN #234).

The alternative approach, which was adopted at the Paris Ministerial
Meeting in September, says, in essence, "We don't know--and most likely
we will never know--how much toxic material the environment can stand,
so we won't chance it. We'll assume that all chemicals can cause harm.
Therefore we'll contain everything and discharge nothing." In sum, zero
discharge.

The Paris meeting in September was formally called the Ministerial
Meeting of the Contracting Parties of the Oslo and Paris Conventions.
At the meeting, a new international Convention (a kind of treaty)--
called the Paris Convention--was adopted to replace the Oslo Convention
(on ocean dumping, 1972) and the earlier Paris Convention (on land-
based sources of pollution, 1974). The new Paris Convention will become
effective when all contracting parties ratify it--a process that should
take roughly two years.

The meeting in Paris in September adopted three key documents--the new
Paris Convention itself (including several Annexes), a Ministerial
Declaration, and an Action Plan. Without going into detail, it is
important to note that the new Paris Convention specifically targets
chlorinated ("organochlorine") compounds for control and phaseout.
Article 3 of Annex I of the new Paris Convention says,

FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS ANNEX, IT SHALL, inter alia [among other
things], BE THE DUTY OF THE COMMISSION TO DRAW UP:

(A) PLANS FOR THE REDUCTION AND PHASING OUT OF SUBSTANCES THAT ARE
TOXIC, PERSISTENT, AND LIABLE TO BIOACCUMULATE ARISING FROM LAND-BASED
SOURCES;

In an Appendix containing criteria and a list of substances targeted
for action, we find "ORGANOHALOGEN COMPOUNDS (AND SUBSTANCES WHICH MAY
FORM SUCH COMPOUNDS IN THE MARINE ENVIRONMENT)." Halogens are a class
of chemicals that includes chlorine, bromine, fluorine, and iodine. In
the context of the new Paris Convention, the important one is chlorine
because many solvents, many pesticides, and many other industrial
chemicals are chlorine-based.

The Ministerial Declaration from the September meeting says the
Ministers

AGREE THAT, AS A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE FOR THE WHOLE CONVENTION AREA,
DISCHARGES AND EMISSIONS OF SUBSTANCES WHICH ARE TOXIC, PERSISTENT, AND
LIABLE TO BIOACCUMULATE, IN PARTICULAR ORGANOHALOGEN SUBSTANCES, AND
WHICH COULD REACH THE MARINE ENVIRONMENT SHOULD, REGARDLESS OF THEIR
ANTHROPOGENIC [HUMAN] SOURCE, BE REDUCED, BY THE YEAR 2000, TO LEVELS
WHICH ARE NOT HARMFUL TO MAN OR NATURE WITH THE AIM OF THEIR
ELIMINATION; TO THIS END TO IMPLEMENT SUBSTANTIAL REDUCTIONS IN THOSE
DISCHARGES AND EMISSIONS AND WHERE APPROPRIATE TO SUPPLEMENT REDUCTION
MEASURES WITH PROGRAMMES TO PHASE OUT THE USE OF SUCH SUBSTANCES; AND
INSTRUCT THE COMMISSION TO KEEP UNDER REVIEW WHAT TIMETABLES THIS WOULD
REQUIRE

The Action Plan adopted in Paris in September says the Commission will

--ESTABLISH PRIORITIES..., IN PARTICULAR GIVING PRIORITY TO THE
SUBSTANTIAL REDUCTION OF INPUTS TO THE MARITIME AREA OF ORGANOHALOGEN
SUBSTANCES WHICH ARE TOXIC, PERSISTENT AND LIABLE TO BIOACCUMULATE,
WITH THE AIM OF THEIR ELIMINATION;

The Paris Convention represents a sea change in the philosophy of
environmental control. A similar emphasis on zero discharge appeared in
an official report from the International Joint [U.S. and Canada]
Commission, or IJC, in April, 1992.2 The IJC was established in 1909 by
the U.S. and Canada to oversee water quality in the Great Lakes under
the Boundary Waters Treaty. As we reported in RHWN #284, the IJC in
April called for the U.S. and Canada:

a) To define many chemicals as "persistent toxic substances" and then
ELIMINATE them because, as the IJC said, "We conclude that persistent
toxic substances are too dangerous to the biosphere and to humans to
permit their release in ANY quantity" (emphasis in the original).

b) To adopt a "weight of the evidence" approach, not waiting for
scientific certainty to be established but taking action to protect
against toxics as soon as the "weight of the evidence" indicates the
need for action.

The IJC recommended that "persistent" chemicals be defined as those
with a half-life in air, water, sediments, or living things, of 8 weeks
or longer. (The half-life of a substance is the time it takes for half
of it to disappear.)

Taken together, these recommendations and the new Paris Convention (and
the Bamako Convention in Africa--see RHWN #257) constitute an entirely
new approach to environmental protection, one that offers real hope of
saving the planet from destruction.

Historically in the U.S. we have been unable to adopt the zero
discharge philosophy mainly because the traditional environmental
movement has refused to endorse the idea. They say it "won't fly" in
Congress. It isn't "doable." It's "unrealistic." They say zero is
scientifically unattainable, so we mustn't ask for it.

Think of it this way: we'll never eliminate all murders either, but
that hasn't stopped us from making murder absolutely illegal.[3] In
some cases, we can achieve zero discharge by eliminating the source
(phasing out chlorine, for example). In other cases, we can achieve
close-to-zero by CHANGING OUR PHILOSOPHY OF INDUSTRIAL DESIGN,
ELIMINATING ALL INTENTIONAL RELEASES. This won't eliminate spills or
leaks, but under a zero discharge philosophy spills and leaks will be
recognized as aberrations and violations of policy intent, and, as
such, they would be punished by fines to provide constant incentive for
improvement.

Is it unfair to blame our friends in the environmental movement for our
national failure to adopt a zero discharge philosophy? If the
environmental movement won't demand zero discharge, no one will. And
we'll never get what we don't demand. Our present path--guided by the
"prove harm" philosophy--is unmistakably self-destructive. In 1992 a
better way became politically possible: zero discharge. Now it is up to
US--all of us, WORKING TOGETHER--to seize the day.

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] The earliest, and still the best, statement of the "zero
discharge" (or "containment") philosophy appears in Theodore B. Taylor
and Charles C. Humpstone, THE RESTORATION OF THE EARTH (NY: Harper &
Row, 1973)--a path-breaking book that is now, sadly, out of print. See
also Charles Cheney Humpstone, "Pollution: Precedent and Prospect,"
FOREIGN AFFAIRS Vol. 50 (January, 1972), pgs. 325-338.

[2] International Joint Commission, SIXTH BIENNIAL REPORT ON GREAT
LAKES WATER QUALITY (Ottawa, Canada, and Washington, DC: International
Joint Commission, April, 1992). Available free from the IJC office at
1250 23rd St., N.W., Suite 100, Washington, DC 20440. Telephone: (202)
736-9000. In Canada, phone (519) 256-7821.

[3] Thanks to A. Winton Dahlstrom of Whitehall, Michigan, for sending
us thoughtful commentary on zero discharge, and to Greenpeace for zero
discharge action.

Descriptor terms: zero discharge; hazardous materials; prove harm; risk
assessment; global warming; acid rain; global environmental problems;
lead; mercury; pcbs; cancer; carcinogens; health; ijc; canada; us;
great lakes; persistent toxic substances;