Rachel's Precaution Reporter #85
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

From: Playfuls.com .......................................[This story printer-friendly]
April 8, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is about to create a constitutional obligation for its citizens to preserve the environment, the first nation to do so. The new approach is based on the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle, and maintenance of intergenerational equity.]

By The Indo-Asian News Service

As the world community struggles to come to grips with global warming and climate change, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan may be about to show the way ahead.

Bhutan is set to become the first nation in the world where the citizens will have a constitutional obligation to preserve the environment, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

As representatives from 24 nations of Asia gather in the Bhutanese capital Thimphu on Tuesday to mark the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone, the Bhutan government will clearly create a landmark in the international drive to protect the environment.

The government of Bhutan has made environmental protection a centrepiece in its development agenda. Article 5 of the constitution emphasises the need for every citizen of the country to protect the environment, conserve its rich biodiversity and prevent ecological degradation including noise, visual and physical pollution through the adoption of environment friendly practices and ethos.

The article also allows the parliament to enact environmental legislation and implement environmental standards and instruments based on the precautionary principle, polluter pay principle, maintenance of intergenerational equity.

Bhutan has thus become the first state to ensure sustainable use of natural resources and reaffirm the sovereign rights of the state over its own biological resources and also that natural resources are used in a way that benefits present and future generations.

The key drivers promoting intergenerational equity are the protocol's precautionary approach i.e., take preventative action to avoid damage to the ozone layer, and elimination of use of ozone depleting chemicals in a cost-effective manner.

By phasing out the production and consumption of ozone depleting chemicals, the governments, industries and individuals involved are contributing to the reduction of the number of skin cancer, cataracts, and diseases caused by impaired immunodeficiency responses caused by excess UV radiation.

"As the ozone layer takes several decades to recover, this means that the actions we are taking now will protect the health of generations to come," says Rajendra Shende, head of the OzonAction Unit of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

The UNEP has planned year-long activities to mark the 20th anniversary of this crucial treaty, which has become one of the landmarks of the global fight to protect environment and is a rare example of a global treaty that is working, unlike say the Kyoto Protocol.

"Our combined efforts to comply with the Montreal Protocol are bringing the ozone layer back to the healthy state in which we found it when it was handed over to us by our parents. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to transmit the best possible environmental legacy to them. These actions are leading to the recovery of the ozone layer and allowing to help us hand it over to our next generation," Shende told IANS just before leaving for Thimphu.

Shende underlines the fact that the Montreal Treaty has not only met its targets for protection and restoration of the ozone layer, but that the Montreal pact is also leading to contribution in the battle against global warming.

"From 1990 to 2010, actions taken by governments to fulfill their obligations under the Montreal Protocol have led to a reduction of nearly 8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in the environment; In comparison, the Kyoto Protocol measures have led to a fall in CO2 by only 2 gigatonnes," says UNEP's executive director Achim Steiner.

Copyright 2007 Ians.in


From: San Francisco Commission on the Environment ........[This story printer-friendly]
November 29, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: This brief report summarizes the activities that have taken place in the City of San Francisco as a result of passage of the precautionary principle ordinance in 2003.]

This report was adopted by the Commission on the Environment for submission to the Board of Supervisors on November 28, 2006.


In July 2003, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted the Precautionary Principle Ordinance (Ordinance), which became Chapter 1 of the San Francisco Environment Code. The Ordinance directed the Department of the Environment to report back to the Board on the progress of the Ordinance three years after adoption.

The Ordinance was written to be "non self-implementing." This means that its intent was to become the basis for future environmental legislation and a guidance document for City decision-making.

In the three years since the adoption of the Precautionary Principle Ordinance, there have been many instances of implementation in the City's purchasing and policymaking, many examples of adoption by other cities of ordinances similar to San Francisco's, and much recognition as San Francisco has been lauded not only for the passage of the Ordinance, but also for the programs and services that have grown out of it.

This report is a summary of the activities undertaken by the City and County of San Francisco to implement the Ordinance as well as the broader impacts of its passage on other jurisdictions in California and nationally. Using the information gathered at the Public Hearing on the Precautionary Principle, this report will also address challenges faced and next steps regarding implementation of the Ordinance.

The Precautionary Principle Ordinance states:

SEC. 101. THE SAN FRANCISCO PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE. Where threats of serious or irreversible damage to people or nature exist, lack of full scientific certainty about cause and effect shall not be viewed as sufficient reason for the City to postpone cost effective measures to prevent the degradation of the environment or protect the health of its citizens.

The Ordinance outlines 5 basic elements of the Precautionary Principle that should be used in decisions made by the City of San Francisco.

They are:

1. Anticipatory Action: 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.

2. Right to Know: The community has a right to know complete and accurate information on potential human health and environmental impacts associated with the selection of products, services, operations or plans. The burden to supply this information lies with the proponent, not with the general public.

3. Alternatives Assessment: An obligation exists to examine a full range of alternatives and select the alternative with the least potential impact on human health and the environment including the alternative of doing nothing.

4. Full Cost Accounting: When evaluating potential alternatives, there is a duty to consider all the reasonably foreseeable costs, including raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, use, cleanup, eventual disposal, and health costs even if such costs are not reflected in the initial price. Short- and long-term benefits and time thresholds should be considered when making decisions.

5. Participatory Decision Process: Decisions applying the Precautionary Principle must be transparent, participatory, and informed by the best available science and other relevant information.

A. Precautionary Purchasing Ordinance

In 2005, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted the Precautionary Purchasing Ordinance (Purchasing Ordinance), the first implementation chapter of the Precautionary Principle, which deals with the City's procurement of commodities. Service contracts were not covered under this ordinance. The Department of the Environment was to report back to the Board once implementation had progressed to determine the feasibility of expanding the Purchasing Ordinance to service contracts.

Like the Precautionary Principle Ordinance, the Purchasing Ordinance was drafted with the help of local health and environmental community groups including Breast Cancer Fund, Commonweal, Clean Water Action, Healthy Children Organizing Project, Center for Environmental Health, and the Golden Gate Environmental Law Center. Many of the groups acted under the umbrella organization, Bay Area Working Group on the Precautionary Principle (BAWG). In addition, public input was sought through public meetings and incorporated into the design of the Purchasing Ordinance. The Office of Contract Administration was a key partner in the Purchasing Ordinance design and implementation, along with the Department of the Environment and the office of Supervisor Sophie Maxwell.

With adoption of the Purchasing Ordinance, the following actions were put in place:

1. Existing City ordinances dealing with procurement were consolidated into the Purchasing Ordinance through regulation (05-01- PPO).

2. Public Participation Guidelines were developed and adopted after extensive public input (05-02-PPO).

3. City purchases of commodities were reviewed and prioritized to determine their potential impact on human health and the environment as well as the availability of environmentally preferable alternatives. After three public meetings and comment on documents, a set of ten Targeted Product Categories was selected and adopted by the Commission on the Environment. These product categories can be found here.

4. Under the terms of the Purchasing Ordinance, environmental attributes were added to the following contracts:

a. Recycled/chlorine-free janitorial paper products

b. Less-toxic janitorial cleaners

c. Low-mercury/high-efficiency lighting

Upcoming efforts include examination of the City computer contract, and an analysis of the purchase of food by City departments.

B. Influence on Pesticide Registration/Labeling

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) is responsible for determining which pesticides are allowed for use and sale nationally. It determines not only what chemicals can be used but how they are used and where they can not be used. For example, some pesticides are only allowed to be used to kill insects on certain crops and are not allowed to be sold for home use to control the same insects.

San Francisco has made an effort to voice concerns over decisions made by US EPA when those decisions could impact the health of City residents or the San Francisco Bay. Traditionally, US EPA has looked at pesticides individually, but not in terms of available alternatives - an approach emphasized under the Precautionary Principle. For example, the US EPA does not ask which is the least toxic way to control a pest; they examine each chemical individually and allow a range of products of varying toxicity to be sold that combat the pest. San Francisco asked the US EPA to utilize an alternatives approach on 16 different pesticides used in the City. In all 16 cases, our comments urged that US EPA consider the availability of safer alternatives to the toxic products, that they require complete data on health risks, and that they increase the transparency of their pesticide registration decisions.

In response to our comments, US EPA conducted an alternatives analysis in its consideration of the use of a highly toxic pesticide, metaldehyde, in snail bait. Using this approach, the US EPA determined that alternative products are available that are just as effective and clearly safer -- especially for pets. Metaldehyde is one of the most commonly reported sources of dog poisoning. US EPA registration managers consulted with the City and decided that metaldehyde should be greatly restricted and that strict warning symbols should be placed on the labels of products containing metaldehyde to alert consumers about potential hazards.

C. San Francisco Foundation Grant Support

The City has benefited greatly from the efforts of community health and environmental organizations. As described above, many organizations came together under the umbrella organization Bay Area Working Group on the Precautionary Principle (BAWG). The efforts of the BAWG have been underwritten in similar part through a grant from the San Francisco Foundation, which has shown great interest in the Precautionary Principle and supported efforts to extend the Principle beyond the borders of San Francisco.

As these community groups expressed the need to expand precautionary thinking to all City agencies and move its influence beyond City procurement, the San Francisco Foundation has again offered support. A second grant was awarded to two San Francisco-based groups, the BAWG and Neighborhood Assemblies Network (NAN). Clean Water Action and the Breast Cancer Fund lead the BAWG efforts. These groups will partner to focus on modeling meaningful public participation and working with a variety of City agencies to apply the five elements of the Precautionary Principle Ordinance to their decision-making process. Work on the grant began in July 2006.

D. San Francisco Welcomes Mayors During World Environment Day

In June of 2005, San Francisco became the first US city to host United Nations World Environment Day. The important role played by mayors and city governments in affecting environmental change was the focus of this week-long event. The Precautionary Principle emerged as a universal theme embraced by many countries outside of the United States. More than a hundred participants from community organizations, governments, and businesses spent an afternoon of intense discussion about implementing the Precautionary Principle. Bringing together such a diverse group of voices helped to illuminate the potential applications of this approach as well as some of the fundamental challenges that must be addressed such as communicating clearly what a precautionary approach means in land use and other issues as well as overcoming opposition from chemical companies and trade associations.

E. San Francisco Ordinance as Catalyst for Other Jurisdictions

By passing an ordinance in San Francisco, other local and state governments were catalyzed into action and crafted their own version of precautionary legislation. Specific examples include the States of Hawaii and Washington, the counties of Marin and Mendocino, and such cities as Berkeley, Eugene, Portland, and Seattle.

F. San Francisco recognized as "Pioneer of Precaution"

In June 2006, the first national conference on the Precautionary Principle was held in Baltimore, Maryland. Several hundred participants from across North America met to learn from community organizations and municipal governments about implementation of the Precautionary Principle. San Francisco was recognized for its leadership and early adoption of the Precautionary Principle and received the Pioneer of Precaution Award from the conference organizing committee. Pioneer of Precaution Awards were also given to the BAWG and the Breast Cancer Fund.

G. Challenges and Next Steps

In October 2006, a public meeting was held by the Commission on the Environment to look towards the future with respect to expanding the impact of the Precautionary Principle. Stakeholders who had been involved throughout the development and implementation of the Ordinance participated in the discussion and all agreed that much work was left to do in order to make City departments aware of the Principle and incorporate its tenets into the decisions they make. Below is a summary of some of the ideas expressed.

Education/Training -- Elected officials, city agencies, the community, and local businesses all need to understand how to implement a precautionary approach. The responsibility for such education is a shared among the Commission on the Environment, the Department of the Environment, and community organizations who believe that a precautionary approach will lead to better environmental decisions. The group recognized the limited ability of the Department of the Environment to reach all City agencies. Ultimately, all City Commissions can play a meaningful role in ensuring that City departments follow the intent of this law.

Checklist -- While the Ordinance spells out general tenets of a precautionary approach, there is no "checklist" of the steps involved in public participation, alternatives analysis, or full cost accounting. Development of such a checklist must be done with special attention to "quality" of implementation. Departments must be able to say that they followed the tenets of the Precautionary Principle to the best of their ability, and community members must feel that the steps were taken in good faith, and were not just actions "checked off" as completed.

Accountability/Reporting -- There is a need for updates beyond this three-year report. Annual reporting at a public meeting, such as the Commission on the Environment, could be coupled with reports given on the Precautionary Purchasing Ordinance. It is important for San Francisco elected officials and citizen commissions to be kept appraised of the progress of this ordinance, as their direct support will be critical to the success of the City's precautionary efforts.


From: San Francisco Chronicle (pg. B4) ....................[This story printer-friendly]
April 11, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: In the face of lawsuits by the chemical industry, the City of San Francisco has modified its precautionary "toxic toy" law, which attempted to ban the sale of children's products that contain certain toxic chemicals.]

By Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors reworked a "toxic toy" ordinance Tuesday that now requires the testing of up to 100 child products a year to see if they contain illegal levels of phthalates, a potentially toxic plastic softener.

Within 18 months, based on the testing, the city will adopt a list of products that will be illegal to sell in San Francisco. In two years, people who sell or make the items would face fines and jail time.

"It's the first law of its kind in the country, and we think it's one more thing that shows that San Francisco is becoming a more family- friendly city," said Supervisor Michela Alioto, who carried major amendments to the law.

The supervisors repealed a section of the law that bans toys and child care products made with bisphenol A, a plastic hardener found in polycarbonate baby bottles, food containers and toys. In a year, the supervisors will reconsider a bisphenol A ban if the state Legislature has not done so.

When the supervisors passed the original law in July 2006, they cited the city's "precautionary principle" requiring a conservative approach to public health. Evidence shows the chemicals can leach out of products and expose vulnerable children, they said.

Researchers have found that phthalates interfere with hormonal systems, disrupt testosterone production and cause malformed sex organs in laboratory animals. At low levels, bisphenol A has been shown to alter the function of the thyroid gland, brain, pancreas and prostate gland in animal studies.

The amended law makes it illegal for manufacturers, distributors and retailers to sell toys and child care products intended for children under age 3 if the products contain certain levels of six forms of phthalates. The European Union also regulates those chemicals, which are common in polyvinyl chloride.

Phthalate manufacturers have sued San Francisco, saying the city lacks regulatory authority. They maintain that phthalate levels in consumer products are too low to pose a threat. The Natural Resources Defense Council has petitioned the San Francisco Superior Court to join the city in defending the city's law.

The chiefs of the city's Environment and Public Health departments recommended that supervisors amend the original law. They felt it had been too tough on retailers who wouldn't know what was in the products. The law lacked enforcement and implementation provisions and didn't include penalties.

"It was asking a lot of local retailers to try to figure out which products contained these chemicals," said Debbie Raphael, toxics- reduction coordinator for the Environment Department. "So the new ordinance will make it clear what the retailers need to do, and it directs these city departments to get the word out to parents and others concerned about the products that they buy for children."

The city expects to test between 75 and 100 products a year, she said, adding that it's unknown how many products will contain phthalates above the allowable levels. The city is working with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to find testing protocols that are faster and less expensive.

Any manufacturer, retailer or distributor selling an illegal product will be subject to fines of up to $1,000 and six months in the County Jail.

E-mail Jane Kay at jkay@sfchronicle.com.

Copyright 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.


From: The Star (Toronto, Ontario) ........................[This story printer-friendly]
April 8, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: "Once you protect the environmental features and functions adequately, if there's anything left over that can be used for recreation, they can look at that. But in a case of conflict, the precautionary principle dictates that you protect the environment first. And that's what's missing."]

By Andrew Chung

On a cloudless, eye-squinting, early spring day in west London, Ont., the stretch of the Thames River in treasured Springbank Park can seem as picturesque as a storybook, which, incidentally, is the name of a children's garden nearby. The water is rushing through the open park dam, people are jogging by with their dogs, and ash trees are stretching their bony limbs, beginning to wake up for the season.

Come summer, however, if you walk by on a sweltering afternoon, the stench will wash over you like a wave of sewage. The area still looks beautiful, but by this time the dam is closed, the mud-coloured water has risen to create a languorous reservoir, and it eventually becomes clear that this little stretch of river is no idyllic walk in the park.

The dam is the focus of an ongoing controversy in this southwestern Ontario city. It's undergoing an over-budget, $7 million rehabilitation after a flood in 2000 caused major damage.

Some insist the dam should be got rid of altogether, since it serves little purpose other than providing canoeists and rowers with urban waters. They argue that dismantling it would improve water quality while removing a major barrier for fish.

Most officials, aside from environmental activists and anglers, seem to agree the river would be better off without the dam, but they defend the decision to keep it anyway because of its historical significance to the city and the demand for boating in the park.

In the course of the debate, Springbank Dam has emerged as a test case for the role and independence of the province's conservation authorities. These agencies are charged with watershed conservation, but also with providing the public with recreational settings.

What happens, as in this case, when those two mandates collide?

Such conflicts will happen more and more in this province. Many of Ontario's thousands of dams are reaching an age where they're breaking down. Dams, if not serving a purpose for flood control or electricity generation, are now generally thought of as obstructing the health of rivers.

Ontario is behind the United States, where there is an active movement to get rid of old dams. But the Star has learned that the province might be catching up. Queen's Park is developing legislation that will address head-on the issue of dam decommissioning (see sidebar).


Sidebar: Queen's Park set to unveil new policy

Though little known to the public, Ontario's vast tangle of waterways is clogged with thousands of dams that disrupt the flow of rivers. And many of them, built in the 1960s or earlier, are breaking down.

Experts are becoming more aware of the environmental costs of dams - particularly those that serve no essential purpose such as flood control or electricity generation -- and want rivers returned to their natural state.

In Ontario, as London's Springbank Dam highlights, each municipality, conservation authority or private interest is deciding for itself what to do with the dams it owns.

Some dams are being dismantled for environmental reasons; others are kept for aesthetic, recreational and historical reasons.

Critics say this piecemeal approach may not be good for the future of Ontario's river system.

"On an issue like dam removals," says biologist Isobel Heathcote, who teaches environmental engineering at the University of Guelph, "there's a need for consistency across the province in terms of policies and practices."

There is no current policy, but the Star has learned one is coming.

The Ministry of Natural Resources is developing a new dam safety program for Ontario and hopes to introduce new legislation later this year. It would allow for the scrutiny of all existing and new dams and specifically look at decommissioning, says Rob Messervey, manager of the ministry's water resources section.

"If (dams) don't meet standards, a plan would be put in place to bring it to standard, or decommission."

Dams at least three metres in height, or two metres with a headpond of at least two hectares, would come under review. There are at least 2,500 of those in the province.

Ontario is already behind the United States, where dam removals have been under way for more than a decade. The conservation group American Rivers has recorded more than 650 dam removals so far, 300 since 1999.

More than a century ago, dams began dotting Ontario's waterways, often to provide power for mills.

In the 1960s, the province helped conservation authorities build them to deal with drought. A host of private dams were also erected.

Conservation authorities across the province are increasingly having to consider removals.

The Grand River Conservation Authority, which includes Kitchener- Waterloo and counts 132 dams in its watershed, has removed three dams in the past two years. But it also decided to keep the Dunville Dam, which served recreational purposes only.

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority removed a small dam at its Bruce's Mill Conservation Area, but also kept one in Palgrave because it was considered a historic feature of the community.


Devastating provincial budget cuts since 1992 have meant that conservation authorities must now rely heavily on municipal governments. Meanwhile, the authorities' boards are now made up primarily of local politicians.

With such a funding source and structure, can they make decisions that are best for the environment but not ideal for local residents?In the case of the Springbank Dam, the answer would seem to be no. "Our board of directors has London members on it, and we've been aware for a long time that removal wasn't really something the city was interested in entertaining," says Ian Wilcox, general manager of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority. "So our position defaulted to that."

He admits, however, that the decision has backfired somewhat. "The Springbank Dam hasn't been great for our reputation locally," he says. "There have been questions as to why we didn't, as environmental advocates, push harder for the removal of the dam, recognizing there are environmental benefits. That's something we're reflecting on."

I'm Scottish -- I get fired up about things," fly-fishing guide Ian Colin James explains with a heavy shrug. He's as broad as two men, a former rugby player, and has 25 years of guiding experience, much of it waist-deep in the Thames.

And he's been fighting the Springbank Dam for more than three years. "I've always believed that when people are involved in conservation, they should do their job," he says. "But they're not doing it."

The drab, concrete, gap-toothed Springbank Dam is classified as either small- or medium-sized. It's 67 metres across and nearly 10 metres high and when in operation, it raises the water level by two storeys, creating a huge reservoir, 7 kilometres long.

It used to function with the insertion of timber stop-logs into the dam, an antiquated mechanism dating back to its construction in 1929. The rehabilitation will change the system to four hydraulic, drawbridge-style gates.

The dam is unique in that it's typically only in operation -- that is, in a "closed" position -- between May and November. The rest of the year it's "open," and the river flows freely.

In December 2003 the conservation authority, as the dam operator for the City of London, which owns the structure, completed an environmental assessment on the dam through an outside consultant. While dam decommissioning emerged as an option, it was rejected in favour of rehabilitation.

This angered James and other anglers, who thought the assessment gave their concerns short shrift. They believe the dam makes it difficult for many species of fish, from walleye to white sucker to bass, to swim and spawn upriver.

So James personally drove to Toronto to deliver a letter saying so to David Ramsay, the minister of natural resources.

Soon, the ministry's area supervisor, Dan Elliott, was involved. Elliott says officials "failed" to address concerns that the dam's new design would prevent some fish species from making it through to upstream spawning beds. The design was modified as a result.

A science team headed by Elliott also determined that about eight in 10 fish made it through the old dam in its open position. They decreed that the new dam must meet the same standard.

But James is not convinced. "There's no evidence the fish will go through the new gates," he says, noting that the gates create a half- metre-high step on the river floor the fish will have to clear. "It's just a guess." He and others are also concerned about the water quality in the reservoir, not only for spawning fish and the larvae that drift back downstream, but also for humans. Locals often remark how, on hot days, the water stinks like sewage.

Seeing as the dam creates a still headpond -- a "cesspool," as some call it -- it was easy for them to link the dam to the water issue.

Last year, James founded a local chapter of Trout Unlimited, a fish conservation group, to advocate for dam removal. The chapter paid for a series of water tests at the dam site, performed by ALS Laboratory Group. The average count for E.coli, a fecal bacterium, was 1319, 13 times higher than the limit of 100 recommended for swimming. One sample was 55 times higher.

The Star obtained City of London E.coli data for tests taken upstream from the dam but still within the reservoir. For 2006, the average count was 833, eight times over the limit. One sample was 52 times over.

Anglers were amazed at the high numbers. The dam is "a high-cost pollution maintenance device," declares Felix Barbetti of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.

Aside from the obvious problems polluted water pose for fish, it can also cause humans grief. "When water sprays in your eye, you get an eye infection," says London Canoe Club president Addie Gushue, who brings alcohol swabs on outings with her dragon boat team. "You don't want to go in the water. But you know kids want to play. They flip their kayaks and think it's a hoot. There's a high incidence of skin rashes, eye and ear infections.

"But you still do it because it's fun," she laughs.The local health unit and the city say poor water health in the Thames is no secret to Londoners, and there are many projects upstream of the dam to help make river water cleaner. They also say boating is fine in the reservoir, just not swimming, and they recommend a shower to anyone who comes into contact with the water.

The reservoir seems to be worse than the rest of the river. Though James sometimes accuses officials of skirting the issue, it was addressed in the dam's environmental assessment. Reservoir water quality was classified as "poor" with, on average, bacterial levels more than twice what they are in the rest of the watershed.

Still, at a city committee meeting on March 19, officials denied any connection between the dam and water quality, instead blaming the 3,100 square kilometres of farms upstream of London that drain into the river, as well as the sewage treatment plants in the city, which every year during heavy rains dump untreated waste effluent into the river.

"The dam doesn't have anything to do with E.coli," maintains Tom Copeland, the city's manager of wastewater and drainage engineering.

But even Copeland would agree the reservoir is quite stagnant, accumulates toxins and sediments, and becomes depleted of oxygen as it heats up from the sun, conditions that are terrible for fish but perfect for algae growth.

"And," adds biologist Isobel Heathcote, who teaches environmental engineering at the University of Guelph, "you have nice warm dark, wet conditions that are suitable for bacteria to grow."

Conservation authorities never get a lot of attention. They operate quietly, fulfilling an unsung role in society that typically gets noticed only when something bad happens, like a flood.

In Canada, they are unique to Ontario, created in 1946 by the province as a way to recruit municipal help for runaway erosion and flooding, and to provide returning war veterans with much-needed employment.

For decades, their main goal was flood control. Now their mandate has expanded to protecting, managing and restoring waterways and woodlands. As well, they're to provide educational and recreational opportunities to the public.

No one denies the authorities do good work. But it's clear that sometimes these mandates come into direct conflict, as they have in London.

A lot of people seem to agree that the Thames would be better off if there was no Springbank Dam, especially since it serves only a recreational purpose, unlike the Fanshawe Dam upriver, which is used for flood control.

Elliott says that from an environmental standpoint, the best-case scenario would be to "blow it the hell out of there." But he acknowledges the competing interests.

Don Pearson, general manager of Conservation Ontario, the umbrella group for Ontario's 36 conservation authorities, concurs. "On an overall habitat standpoint," he says, "we'd have to agree it'd be better for the river... if it were free-flowing."

Even Wilcox of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority concedes that his agency could have advocated more loudly for dam removal, but he adds: "There was recognition early on that the city wanted to retain the structure, and most of us understood that out of all the dams this is one of biggest and heavily used recreation spots in the whole watershed."

Indeed, a number of recreational groups exerted heavy pressure on city hall. The Canoe Club, which has close to 2,000 members, and the rowing club, with which it shares a clubhouse on the reservoir, fought hard to keep the dam."I don't understand why they'd want to remove that dam," says Canoe Club president Gushue. "Everybody can function with it... When the dam is down there's nothing there. But when it's up, it's awesome."

They made sure to let city hall know that a number of Canada's top rowers, including Marnie McBean, have trained in London, and that the economic loss to city businesses due to cancelled regattas could reach $1 million.

Conservation authorities province-wide regularly face such choices - between what's best for the environment and citizens' demands. "It's an everyday occurrence," Pearson says.

Conservation authorities say they have to balance the competing priorities. But they should protect the environment first, says environmental lawyer David Donnelly, who represents Toronto-based group Environmental Defence and has extensive experience dealing with conservation authorities.

"It's the ordering of the mandate that needs to be changed," he says. + "That key question of 'Which (mandate) has precedence?' -- that's not a decision that should be left to individual conservation authorities," says University of Guelph biologist Heathcote. "There should be some guiding hand across the province."

But under the current system, says Wilcox, conservation authorities frequently have to perform a balancing act. "There are tradeoffs, I won't deny that," he says. When asked whether conservation agencies should be making tradeoffs, he replies, "Even though our legislation comes from the province, we were created by the municipalities and so we're a product of our municipal governments."

Indeed, conservation authorities have become more reliant on municipalities as a result of 87 per cent provincial funding cuts since 1992, to $7.6 million (although extra money is granted for infrastructure and clean water projects).

In addition, today directors on authority boards are primarily municipal politicians -- on average 75 per cent, according to Conservation Ontario. In the past, many members had an environmental background or an interest in the work of the authority, says Rob Messervey, manager of the ministry's water resources section.

For Heathcote, the municipal role could mean citizens' demands are more likely to get a hearing in conservation authorities, but could also erode their independence. "The more funding that flows from the municipalities, the more the municipalities are actively guiding the decisions of the conservation authority," she says, "the more its voice will be felt in decisions."

Though its rehabilitation has been so controversial, it appears many Londoners still don't know what's going on in their storied Springbank Park.

"I don't think we knew how it affected the environment, or that we could get rid of it," says area resident Mary Morris, on a stroll past the dam.

"I do know the water is awful though."

"To me the dam doesn't make any difference," says psychiatrist Dr. Gamal Sadek. "I come here to see the geese."

Their lack of concern belies a continuing fight -- the anglers are planning a public meeting later this month.

But two dam gates have already been installed. There are two more to go.


Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle -- please Email them to us at rpr@rachel.org.

Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org
Tim Montague - tim@rachel.org


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