Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Precautionary Priciple

Where We Live
As I waited for my friend Tom Horton to begin his talk at the 15th annual Water Quality Monitoring Conference, I came on a concept in the program I had never heard of before. It’s the Precautionary Principle, and I’m not surprised it was Greek to me. Because for us Americans, it’s a new way of thinking, though it’s a standard part of decision making in Europe.
Here’s the principle: When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
I’m struck by the implications past, present and future posed by this approach to modern life. What if we actually applied this common-sense principle to land-use decisions? What if developers had to prove their project won’t harm the environment, rather than the neighbors having to prove that it will? How much better off would Chesapeake Bay be today if we had weighed our actions with this principle in mind?
I remember my surprise at looking at a Geological Survey wetlands map of Calvert County dating back to the 1920s. Almost half the county was designated non-tidal wetlands. The high ground ran along Route 4 and Route 2; much of the rest had been determined by the federal government to be essentially under water.
You don’t need to be a scientist to know that building houses and businesses on land that gets regularly covered by water is a bad idea. Subsequent laws, like the Clean Water Act actually outlaw such activity. So how did it happen that much of Calvert County ended up being developed? Where was the Precautionary Principle when we needed it?
Do you think I’m nuts? Are you saying, If we hadn’t let people build on wetlands, there wouldn’t be anyone living in Calvert County?
Calvert County wouldn’t look like it does today, that’s for sure. And the thousands of acres of wetlands throughout the Chesapeake would not have been built upon either because we would have realized that building there would threaten our environmental health and wallets.
Countless examples come to mind of what happens when property rights, jobs and politics get mixed together. Invariably, the environment takes a hit.
Look at Kingsport at the edge of Annapolis. Since colonial times, here were farms overlooking creeks that flow into the South River. When Kingsport was annexed by the City of Annapolis a few years back, the developer promised the environment would be protected. The engineering plans included state-of-the-art stormwater management, tree planting and conservation easements that would offset the loss of forest and fields.
During construction of this large development, many things went wrong. Several major storms washed tons of sediment into those creeks. The city put stop-work orders on the project and heads rolled. But we will be living with that disaster for many years to come. No one will be held responsible for that mess. Life and death goes on.
Each of us can remember some development project that didn’t work out the way it was planned. And every time we get a hard rain, the stormwater flowing into the Bay is working its black magic, turning aquatic creatures on their ear, from frogs with extra limbs to fish that change sex. The red flags are everywhere.
The Precautionary Principle isn’t a totally alien concept. There are times when it is actually applied. Most recently, the feds and the Bay states decided that there was too much risk surrounding the introduction of the Asian oyster.
But here’s the thing. Often times it isn’t easy to determine the extent of the threat. These issues are complicated. The experts can’t agree.
Does the expansion of the LNG facility at Cove Point pose a clear danger? How about a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant? How about a million more people moving into Maryland in the next few years? Which is worse: building a bigger road like the Intercounty Connector that might hurt the environment or having thousands of people sit idling in traffic every rush hour, burning precious fossil fuels?
When Tom Horton came to the podium, he described how it’s the old timers who remember what Chesapeake Bay used to be like who tell you that environmental damage often takes a fair amount of time to manifest itself. But many of today’s scientists are young and never saw the Bay in good shape. So they don’t notice how much we have lost, and they don’t feel the urgency of the threat.
Tom ended his talk with these words: “I can’t be optimistic, but I can hope.”
I hope we can all apply a little more precaution in our daily lives, remembering that the decisions we make today will determine the health of the world we pass on to our children tomorrow.
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