Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#770 - Environmental Justice and Precaution, 28-May-2003

Published July 31, 2003

In the U.S., we all live in the same country, but we do not all
live in the same environment. For example, a report just
released by the Environmental Justice & Health Union in
Oakland, Cal. examines U.S. government data and concludes that
blacks and Hispanics are exposed to exotic industrial poisons
more often and with greater intensity than whites.[1]

Key findings of the new report include:

** Blacks are more likely to be exposed to PCBs
[polychlorinated biphenyls] and dioxins, compared to whites.
PCBs and dioxins are associated with a host of diseases
including cancer, diabetes, and damage to the immune system.

** Mexican-Americans are more likely to be exposed to
pesticides and herbicides and are more likely to be exposed at
high levels, compared to whites. Many pesticides and herbicides
are associated with birth defects, cancers, and damage to the
hormone system.

Of course environmental racism is not the only source of
environmental injustice -- people with low income, no matter
what their race, are much more likely to be exposed to
contaminants in their daily lives (like diesel fumes, smog, and
strong chemicals at work) and they are much more likely to
suffer from chronic diseases like asthma, diabetes, cancer,
high blood pressure, and stroke.

Children -- especially children of color, and children of
low-income families -- are particularly prone to the injustice
of toxic exposures that they did not invite, and were given no
information or choice about. They also happen to be the ones
most sensitive to harm from industrial poisons.

Often, environmental injustice can be traced to the cumulative
impacts of numerous sources of contamination, all jammed into
one part of town.

For example, people in the Waterfront South district of Camden,
New Jersey live in housing nestled among two Superfund sites, a
sewage treatment plant, a trash-to-steam incinerator, an Ogden
co-generation plant, the Camden Iron and Metal works, the
Jen-Cyn sheet metal plant and Comarco Pork Products. As if that
weren't enough, before she left N.J. to head up George Bush's
EPA, Governor Christie Whitman issued an air permit for a new
St. Lawrence Cement plant which now dusts everyone in
Waterfront South with a fine mist of powdered rock, day in and
day out. (To see pictures of Waterfront South, go to
http://www.camden-ahec.org/environmental_health.ppt )

Now, however, activists are crafting a new set of tools for
fighting environmental injustices, including cumulative
impacts.

Take San Francisco's new Precautionary Principle law.[2] The
new law opens with a statement about justice: "Every San
Franciscan has a right to a healthy, safe environment." And the
law says, "the City sees the Precautionary Principle approach
as its policy framework to develop laws for a healthier and
more just San Francisco." A more JUST San Francisco.

Most importantly the San Francisco ordinance says people have a
duty to take preventive action when they have reasonable
suspicion that harm is occurring or is about to occur: "There
is a duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm.
Government, business, and community groups, as well as the
general public, share this responsibility," the law says.

Under the old way, environmental justice (EJ) activists had to
prove to a scientific certainty that harm had occurred before
they could demand remedial action. The burden of proof has now
shifted. In San Francisco, when reasonable suspicion of harm is
raised, the burden is now on government (and the corporate
sector) to show that preventive action is not needed, instead
of the other way around. This shifts power within the
community.

The precautionary approach (basically, "better safe than
sorry") turns traditional environmental policy on its head.
Instead of asking, "How much harm is allowable?" the
precautionary approach asks us to consider, "How little harm is
possible?" The precautionary approach urges a full evaluation
of available alternatives for the purpose of preventing or
minimizing harm.

There has been another new development: In early July, the
California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA)
Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC), issued a
report recommending that Cal/EPA adopt the precautionary
principle as a way of fixing, or preventing, environmental
justice problems in California.[3] In its report, the Cal/EPA
EJAC committee said:

"The Committee reached broad consensus on the importance of
using precautionary approaches to environmental and public
health protection. Committee members believe that it is not
necessary or appropriate to wait for actual, measurable harm to
public health or the environment before evaluating alternatives
that can prevent or minimize harm. The Committee also
recognizes that many programs currently implemented by
Cal/EPA... are precautionary in nature. Based on the data
available to the Committee, it also concludes that additional
precaution may be needed in order to address or prevent
environmental justice problems."

This endorsement of precaution is particularly significant
because the Cal/EPA EJAC committee included representatives
from many government agencies and the corporate sector, as well
as community activists.[4]

The precautionary principle says,[5]

(1) If you have reasonable suspicion of harm, and

(2) you have scientific uncertainty, then

(3) you have a duty to take action to prevent harm, by

(4) shifting the burden of proof of safety onto those people
whose activities raised the suspicion of harm in the first
place, and evaluating the available alternatives to find the
least harmful way, using a decision-making process that is
open, informed, and democratic and that includes the people who
will be affected by the decision.

It is this fourth part of the precautionary principle that the
Cal/EPA EJAC committee highlighted in its report -- assessing
alternatives through meaningful democratic participation.

"In fact, the theme of meaningful public participation is
central throughout all of the [committee's] recommendations,"
the committee wrote.[3, pg. 9] And: "Improving public
participation in environmental decision-making forms the
foundation for successful implementation of the other
goals."[3, pg. 16]

This emphasis on meaningful public involvement in decisions is
consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's
official definition of environmental justice, which begins,

"Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful
involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national
origin, or income with respect to the development,
implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws,
regulations, and policies.... Meaningful involvement means
that: (1) potentially affected community residents have an
appropriate opportunity to participate in decisions about a
proposed activity that will affect their environment and/or
health; (2) the public's contribution can influence the
regulatory agency's decision; (3) the concerns of all
participants involved will be considered in the decision making
process; and (4) the decision makers seek out and facilitate
the involvement of those potentially affected."[6]

The Cal/EPA EJAC committee structured its recommendations
around four key goals. We will only look at the first two. The
first goal is, "1. Providing for meaningful public
participation." The report suggests many steps that government
can take to make sure that affected communities can participate
in decisions and are listened to, including:

(a) creating public participation guidelines for agencies to
follow, and training agency staff to follow the guidelines;

(b) giving one person or one office authority and
responsibility for coordinating effective public participation
opportunities;

(c) taking many specific steps to assure that information flows
into affected communities;

(d) with information, financial grants, and technical
assistance, build the capacity of communities to understand,
and participate in, decisions;

(e) build relationships between communities and their
government in many different ways.

The committee's second goal is to "Integrate environmental
justice into the development, adoption, implementation, and
enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."

The report devotes 10 meaty pages to this goal. This section is
filled with ideas to help Cal/EPA identify successful (or
unsuccessful) EJ initiatives and implement precautionary
decision-making, such as:

** Officially recognize the importance of precaution, and that
it is not always necessary or appropriate to wait for actual,
measurable harm to public health or the environment before
evaluating alternatives that can prevent or minimize harm.

** Identify, for each [Cal/EPA department], significant
decision points or processes within existing and developing
programs where a precautionary approach is currently used, or
could be used, and evaluate whether additional precaution is
needed to address or prevent environmental justice problems.

The committee made the following specific (precautionary)
suggestions:

** Creation of buffer zones around significant sources of risk;

** Relocation of small sources away from residential areas or
sites of sensitive receptors (such as schools, hospitals, etc.)

** Develop tools for communities and local governments to use
for evaluating the siting of facilities that significantly
increase pollution in disproportionately impacted communities,
including the authority for denial of permits, and increase the
weight of community involvement in those decisions.

The Cal/EPA EJAC committee stressed the use of alternatives
assessment in many of its recommendations, such as:

** Engage community and environmental justice groups in
community planning activities that address the potential
conflicts between jobs, economic development, and environmental
health; and

** Adoption of stricter control and/or pollution prevention
measures to reduce pollution and health risks.

Precautionary recommendations for land-use and zoning include:

** Requirements for local government to demonstrate integration
of environmental justice principles into general plans at their
next General Plan update.

** Requirements for local government to adopt new land use and
zoning laws which use a buffer zone, objective siting criteria,
or other measure[s] to prevent the location of residences,
schools, or other sensitive populations near significant
sources of pollution.

** Pursue amendments to the California Environmental Quality
Act (CEQA) to require more meaningful alternatives assessment
that addresses all reasonably viable alternative processes,
methods and locations for new projects.

** Require cumulative impact analysis for new applications.

** Significantly increase the role and influence of community
residents and the weight of their recommendations via community
planning groups or other entities that have a significant role
in the permit decision-making process...

Precautionary suggestions for siting and permitting include:

** Establish and provide to local government health-based
permitting requirements that would prevent the issuance of
permits for certain types of activities near sensitive
receptors.

** Establish permit action thresholds and control requirements
commensurate with an area's media-specific cumulative pollution
burden.

** In areas that have been identified as having a
disproportionately high cumulative impact, require applications
for new or modified facilities to include a pollution
prevention analysis that addresses materials that are
significant (because of volume, potential risk, hazard, etc.),
and includes the following:

*** Opportunities for material substitutions;

*** Top-down selection of alternative materials (in other
words, non-toxic is considered first and then the next least
toxic material, and so on);

*** Clear justification for any proposal to use a material
other than the least toxic available (including, for example,
availability of data on materials, feasibility of substitution,
product performance/safety issues, etc.) and;

*** Other alternatives analyses (i.e., process changes, fuels
substitutions, movement of raw materials/product, other energy
considerations), with justification for the alternative
selected.

To reduce present-day ongoing harms, the committee devoted a
section of its report to "risk reduction and pollution
prevention," including these six recommendations:

1) Reduce environmental risks to children through pollution
prevention and other mechanisms by using a public process to:

** Identify the pollutants and pollution sources (including
industrial, municipal, transportation, and others) which
present the highest risk to children, based on toxicity,
proximity, persistence, or other factors;

** Prioritize these pollutants and processes for further
action, and conducting research into non-toxic and/or less
toxic alternatives;

** Require adoption of non/less toxic alternatives through a
comprehensive alternatives assessment process that includes
evaluation of technical feasibility and cost, and allows a
reasonable transition period;

** Provide information and resources to businesses,
municipalities, and other entities to encourage the use of
non/less toxic alternatives.

2) Cal/EPA should also seek funding to assist schools and
municipalities to implement pollution prevention programs....
Select examples of risk reduction actions could include:

** Requiring schools and municipalities to implement Pollution
Prevention or precautionary approaches to reduce and eliminate
the use of toxic pesticides, cleaners, paints, inks, etc.,
based on a comprehensive assessment of alternatives;

** Requiring municipalities to redesign traffic flow to limit
or eliminate diesel vehicle traffic through residential
communities;

3) Reduce existing and potential environmental health problems
in impacted communities by taking the following actions. In
implementing these actions, Cal/EPA should not place an
unfunded mandate on local government and/or local programs.

** Identifying all facilities and operations based on existing
data that may pose a threat to human health and the environment
because of their storage, use, disposal, or emission/discharge
of hazardous substances, including pesticides. To implement
this item, Cal/EPA should make use of currently available data
under California's right to know laws and federal facilities
information, including Superfund and the National Priorities
List (NPL), and shall at a minimum rely on the thresholds for
reporting under those laws.

** Using a public process, assess cumulative pollution burden
for disproportionately impacted communities based on the degree
of threatened harm to human health and the environment that
communities experience.

** Using a public process and data from the previous two steps,
identify and prioritize disproportionately impacted
communities.

** Using a public process, establish goals and performance
measures to reduce the threat of harm to human health and the
environment in these disproportionately impacted communities,
using enhanced pollution controls and pollution prevention.

** Create effective mechanisms with the community for public
participation, and support state and local agencies, to enhance
the role played by residents in disproportionately impacted
communities in decisions about how to reduce pollution and
risks in their community.

4) Work with the Department of Health Services (DHS) to
establish goals to reduce health and environmental risks, such
as:

** Setting goals and timelines for eliminating lead poisoning
in children; and

** Setting goals and timelines for reducing the incidence of
asthma, environmental-related cancer, and other environmental-related
illnesses.

5) Establish a California Office of Pollution Prevention... to:

** Serve as a clearinghouse for information on less and
non-toxic products and processes;

** Evaluate products and processes under consideration by
municipalities and industries;

** Conduct research into new processes and products that could
provide less toxic, or non-toxic alternatives for
municipalities and industries; and

** Provide support to municipalities, industries, and other
entities seeking to implement the recommendations for "Risk
Reduction and Pollution Prevention," and other related
recommendations in Goal #2.

6) Identify and address environmental justice gaps related to
preventive approaches to risk reduction.

In sum, the Cal/EPA EJAC committee report offers 45 pages of
detailed suggestions for reducing and preventing environmental
injustices in California. Most of these suggestions derive from
one part or another of the precautionary approach: be alert for
signs of trouble (especially cumulative impacts) and, when you
find them, take action without waiting for definite proof of
harm because by the time you have proof, it will be too late
and the harm will have been done. What sort of action should
you take? First, shift the burden of proof of safety onto those
people whose activities raised the suspicion of harm in the
first place. Second, evaluate all available alternatives to
find the least harmful way, using a participatory, democratic
process that respects and engages those people who will be
affected by the decisions.

Naturally, a precautionary approach cannot reduce the need for
community organizing, or hard work. Government and the
corporate sector will always have to be held accountable by
alert, organized citizens.

But whenever there is reasonable suspicion of harm, a
precautionary policy puts the burden on government and the
corporate sector to show that preventive action is not needed,
instead of the other way around. This represents a shift in
power.

Furthermore, a precautionary approach requires government and
the corporate sector to engage the affected community in a
respectful discussion of available alternatives, with the goal
of selecting the least-damaging way. For most communities, this
too represents an important shift in power.

And remember, folks, there is nothing special about California.
These ideas could be tried anywhere, including your own home
town.

==================

My thanks to Carolyn Raffensperger and Maria B. Pellerano for
reviewing drafts of this newsletter.

[1] Available on the web at
http://www.ejhu.org/disparities.html .

[2] Read the San Francisco Precautionary Principle law at
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=195 . Learn how
the law came about in Rachel's #765 at
http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/index.cfm?issue_ID=2338 .

[3] The July 11, 2003 Draft Cal/EPA EJAC report is available at
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=186 .

[4] Cal/EPA EJAC members include: Detrich B. Allen,
Environmental Affairs Department -- Los Angeles, CA; Henry
Clark, West County Toxics Coalition -- Richmond, CA; Michael
Dorsey, Department of Environmental Health -- San Diego, CA;
Dorothy M. Hallock, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe -- Needles, CA;
Robert Harris, Pacific Gas & Electric -- San Francisco, CA;
William Jones, County of Los Angeles Fire Department --Commerce, CA;
James Kennedy, Contra Costa Redevelopment Agency
-- Martinez, CA; Barbara Lee, Northern Sonoma County Air
Pollution Control District -- Healdsburg, CA; Joseph K. Lyou,
California Environmental Rights Alliance -- El Segundo, CA;
Cynthia McClain-Hill, McClain-Hill Associates -- Los Angeles,
CA; Donna Pittman, Pittman & Associates -- San Francisco, CA;
Carlos Porras, Communities for Better Environment -- Huntington
Park, CA; Levonne Stone, Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network
-- Marina, CA; Diane Takvorian, Environmental Health Coalition
-- San Diego, CA; Cindy K. Tuck, California Council for
Environmental & Economic Balance -- Sacramento, CA; Eva
Vasquez-Camacho, United Farm Workers of America -- Bakersfield,
CA; Barry R. Wallerstein, South Coast Air Quality Management
District -- Diamond Bar, CA;

[5] For good discussions of the precautionary principle, see
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=187 and
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=188 and
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=197 .

[6] See http://www.epa.gov/compliance/environmentaljustice/ .