Cal-EPA Tackles the "Precautionary Principle"

By Loretta Macktal, Executive Assistant to the Vice President, Government Relations

Capitol Update, Feb. 21, 2003 Share this on FacebookTweet thisEmail this to a friend

On Tuesday, February 18, Cal-EPA's Advisory Committee on Environmental Justice met in Sacramento to discuss a radical policy paradigm being promoted by the environmental community as the answer to what they view as failures in existing environmental and public health protection policies. Advocates use the so-called "precautionary principle", which promotes pre-emptive regulatory action in the face of scientific uncertainty, as a rationale for chemical bans, new torts and other actions aimed at constraining or curtailing industrial activities.

It became clear during the discussion that the proponents do not share a common interpretation of the precautionary principle, which is cause for concern in light of extreme applications of the principle in other countries. Perhaps the most shocking of these was a decision by the Peruvian government in the late 1980's to discontinue the practice of chlorinating drinking water based on concerns raised by environmental groups about cancer risks associated with chlorination by-products. This action produced one of Latin America's worst cholera epidemics, claiming at least 11,000 lives. This example was used by one of the panelists, a toxicologist, to argue that California should continue with its current practice of exercising precaution in standard setting through application of risk assessment and risk management tools, rather than embracing the precautionary principle without regard to public health.

It was also apparent that the proponents have given little thought as to how the precautionary principle would be applied in a regulatory context. One of the central themes of the principle is shifting the burden of proof to businesses to demonstrate the absence of harm. When pressed on the question of how one would make this determination, the proponents could only offer general concepts (such as whether a substance is mobile or long-lived in the environment) and deferred a detailed response to a later date. On this point, the South Coast Air Quality Management District Executive Officer requested a list of specific actions that regulators can take to implement the precautionary principle, considering the limited budget and staff resources and the need to provide certainty to regulated parties.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the meeting was the public comment period, which included testimony from representatives of the California Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Paper, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union (PACE), all of whom noted that extreme applications of the precautionary principle could result in lost jobs and economic opportunities for minority communities. Their comments should serve as a reminder to state officials and all environmental justice stakeholders that quality of life issues should be taken into consideration along with chemical exposures and theoretical risks in evaluating the need to change current environmental policies.

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