The Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald, November 3, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: In Georgia, the precautionary principle is advancing in several locales simultaneously as environmental justice activists, church groups, and government officials join forces to explore the power of foresight and forecaring to protect public health in communities.]

By Lee Shearer

[RPR introduction: The precautionary principle is moving forward steadily in Georgia. In April, ECO-Action in Atlanta sponsored a precaution workshop for local, state and federal government officials. (We last heard about ECO-Action in RPR #7.) Subsequently, ECO-Action was invited to put on a precaution workshop for the Northeast Georgia Children's Environmental Health Coalition which is made up of community-based groups, plus representatives from the University of Georgia and the Northeast [Georgia] Health District a wing of the Georgia Division of Public Health, in Athens, Ga.

Now a citizens' group in Athens -- Clean Air Athens -- has set a long-term goal of getting the precautionary principle adopted in Athens (Clarke County). The group's short-term goal is to reduce toxic air emissions from two local manufacturing firms, Certainteed and Nakanishi (a manufacturer of bearings). Bill Sheehan of the Product Policy Institute in Athens, who attended the April workshop in Atlanta, is promoting the precautionary principle and related innovative policies and has joined fellow residents working with Clean Air Athens.

As we learn in the news story below, the Northeast [Georgia] Health District has now asked the Clarke County Board of Health to ask Nakanishi in Athens to find a less-dangerous substitute for their main toxic emission; presently the firm emits 300 pounds of cancer-causing TCE each day into the air in Athens, near a middle school.

Interestingly, the Clarke County Board of Health has no legal authority to demand reduction in toxic releases -- in Georgia, environmental regulators are the ones charged with protecting public health from toxics, and it is simply the case that corporations own the legislature in Georgia, as in so many other states. All the county health department can legally do is politely request that a corporation stop poisoning the community.

An important motivating force in this story is Jill McElheney, a citizen in Athens-Clarke County who founded Micah's Mission. It was she who got the Northeast Health District to join local citizens in forming the Northeast Georgia Children's Environmental Health Coalition. A child of Ms. McElheney's was diagnosed with leukemia at age 4 (he's now doing well). Ms. McElheney's water supply was later found to be chemically contaminated. Powerful (and powerfully motivated) women, like Jill McElheney, and Carol Williams of ECO-Action, have been leading the toxics/EJ movements for many years. It seems only natural that they should now lead the precautionary principle citizens' movement that has arisen out of grass-roots efforts to end toxic injustice.

This is a story of successful multi-racial coalitions, working with both conservative and liberal churches, that have reached out to bring university personnel, plus local and state government agencies, into this work. They have found a way to move precaution forward to protect children in a state not generally known for being on the forefront of innovative public policies. It doesn't get much better than this. -- RPR Editors]


By Lee Shearer

The Clarke County Board of Health will schedule a meeting to decide whether to ask an Athens factory to stop emitting trichloroethylene, or TCE, a hazardous chemical that may cause cancer.

An official with the Northeast Health District presented information on TCE at the board's bi-monthly regular meeting Wednesday and asked the board to draft a letter making the request. The factory in question, bearing maker Nakanishi Manufacturing Corporation, uses the chemical as a degreaser at its factory at the intersection of Voyles Road and Spring Valley Road near Coile Middle School and New Grove Baptist Church.

But the board, meeting with only four of its seven members, should wait until it can get all or most of the members at a meeting, said Athens-Clarke County Commissioner States McCarter, a member of the health board.

The board of health cannot force the company to stop using TCE. The letter would merely request that the company find a different chemical to use.

The company releases about 300 pounds of TCE per day into the atmosphere, Louis Kudon, director of the Northeast Health District's Community Health Assessment, Surveillance and Epidemiology Unit, told the board.

Long-term exposure to the chemical can damage the human liver, kidneys and central nervous system, and health agencies consider it "probably carcinogenic" to humans, he said.

Health district workers have sampled air at the nearby middle school and other locations close to the plant, but did not detect the chemical. However, the equipment they used could only detect TCE at concentrations above one part per million, he said.

Researchers at the University of Georgia plan to go back and sample air in the area again, however, this time using equipment that can measure the chemical in parts per billion, he said.

Kudon said the health district has not heard of any increase in cancers or other health problems at Coile Middle School.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration limits workers' TCE exposure to no more than 100 parts per million over an eight-hour period, but there is no standard for outdoor air, he said.

The chemical once was commonly used in household products, but now it is rarely used, he said.

Most companies have replaced TCE with other products, Kudon said as he asked the board to send the company a letter requesting it stop using the chemical.

"We would like the Board of Health to write a letter stating that releasing TCE into the environment is not a good idea and we would like them to replace it," he said.

Georgia produces more TCE air pollution than all but seven other states, at about 231,000 pounds a year, and the Nakanishi plant produces nearly half of Georgia's total with about 111,000 pounds, he said.

McCarter said he was "not comfortable" with voting on the letter with only four board members present, nor with the fact that health workers had not actually detected TCE in air near the factory.

Board of Health Chairman Charles Braucher Sr. suggested calling a meeting in December to take up the issue, but other board members suggested a meeting even earlier, later this month.