San Francisco Commission on the Environment, 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.