Richmond City council votes to practice precaution
on May 18, 2011
In a complex and dynamic world where scientific certainty is hard to come by and new technologies, chemicals and industrial processes are being introduced into the world, Richmond’s City Council decided that it is best to take a cautious approach to making policies and city planning. At least, that’s the aim of a resolution passed at last night’s city council meeting.
The idea behind the resolution is that the city should use the precautionary principle, which holds that if there is a possibility that a policy or plan will have potentially dangerous health or environmental impact—even if there is no scientific consensus—it is better to err on the side of caution. This resolution will put the burden of proof on companies proposing new developments and businesses within city limits to show that there is little chance that a local group will be negatively impacted. Although the resolution is symbolic, it is a statement that the council will consider health impacts for any decisions they make—like new buildings or industrial and manufacturing developments—and will ask the organization proposing a new action to prove that it is unlikely to cause harm.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who introduced the measure along with Councilmembers Tom Butt and Jeff Ritterman, said the measure was really just common sense. “We as a council have been fighting for a long time problems of health in our community, disproportionate problems of health,” she said. “And now we’re just making it official policy.”
Councilmember Nat Bates said that the idea behind the resolution sounded nice, but it wouldn’t do anything. Bates said that there are already federal and state laws on the books that protect people and the environment, and that the resolution would do nothing to make those laws—and the agencies enforcing them—more effective. “If they’re not enforcing the laws, do you think this resolution will make them enforce them?” he asked. Bates abstained from voting.
During the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted the precautionary principle. In order to combat environmental racism—a term used to describe the way that communities of color and low-income communities have disproportionately borne the impact of pollutants—President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which states that “no person or group of people should shoulder a disproportionate share of the negative environmental impacts” resulting from government policy and program decisions from the national down to the local level.
Jim Cannon, director of special projects for the Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation, a dry bulk marine terminal, is worried that the city’s new resolution will cause problems for Richmond’s current and future manufacturing and industrial community. At the council meeting, he called the resolution lethal to business, and said that it was illogical. “It asks businesses to prove that there is no harm that can be done before they actually do something,” he said. “You can’t prove a negative.”
Cannon said the measure sends the message that Richmond is not friendly to business, and said he’s worried businesses will choose not to come to Richmond because of it. He said that it’s ludicrous for the city to pass a resolution like this during a time when they are trying to get the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (LBNL) to build their second campus in Richmond. “If they come here, they will work on new products, new chemicals, new energy technologies,” Cannon said. But with scientific research like that, they can’t necessarily prove that everything developed will not be toxic or harmful, said Cannon, who thinks the lab management would see the resolution as a barrier to their research.
But McLaughlin pointed out that Berkeley, where LBNL is based, and San Francisco, which she said had a thriving technology sector, have already adopted the precautionary principle as a guide to inform policy.
The resolution is not a law, but is a symbolic motion meant to guide the city’s decision-making, said Nicole Valentino, a community advocate in the mayor’s office who helped draft the resolution. “It doesn’t really have any teeth yet,” she said.
Valentino said cities like Richmond, which have a long history of heavy industry, have borne significant effects from industrial pollutants, but that it is difficult to prove the harm being done until after the fact, making it difficult to get corporations to acknowledge the impact their industry is having. The city has an asthma rate twice as high as the national average, and Richmond’s kids are three times as likely to be hospitalized for respiratory issues, she said.
Many environmental and health activists have attributed increased rates of asthma to the Chevron refinery and other heavy industry in the city, but proving the exact cause is difficult, says Valentino. “One of the issues that comes up is that [industrial corporations] say you cannot prove scientifically that what we do is harmful, or as harmful as you make it out to be,” she said. “And we know that even when we have scientific data behind us, the opponents can find scientists to challenge it, even if they can’t disprove it.”
At Tuesday night’s meeting, supporters of the resolution brought up numerous other examples of products that caused massive harm but continued to be used even when there was growing concern about their negative health effects. Ritterman named DDT as one example, and said that the chemical lingers in the environment even after its use was banned in the 1970s. “My granddaughter will be born with DDT in her cord blood,” he said. Butt said that despite mounting evidence of toxicity in fire retardants, they continue to be applied to most children’s products.
Nile Malloy of the environmental organization Communities for a Better Environment hailed the decision as a much-needed statement in support of transparency and standing on the side of the people. “This is sort of a long time coming addressing the health impacts that have been faced by our communities,” he said. “Just an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
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The problem with the precautionary principle as adopted in Richmond is that it says nothing about the potential benefits of the project or act. That is, it says that if there is a suspected harm, the proponent must prove that there will not be any harm. What if there will, in fact, be harm, but the harm is outweighed by the benefits? There is no room for such a cost-benefit analysis under the City Council’s resolution. Thus, this policy would bar air bags in cars because they can cause harm: injuries to children and small people, even though the number of injuries prevented and lives saved would vastly exceed the number of “harms” caused. Similarly, the precautionary principle as adopted would bar vaccines, which sometimes cause the disease and often cause side-effects, but where the prevention of the disease certainly outweighs the harm. Also, the resolution does not specify that the suspected harm that must be disproved must be reasonable. as written, absolutely crazy, unsubstantiated suspicions of harm must be disproven. This is akin to the African nations that barred the polio vaccinations because they suspected it was a CIA plot to sterilize their children, which caused a resurgence of polio affecting thousands of children and delayed the eradication of the disease.