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Eugene Weekly : Natural Resistance : 12.3.09




The Precautionary Principle

A long-term perspective for Lane County

by Mary O’Brien

By a 5-0 vote, Lane County’s commissioners recently made an astounding commitment to the county. On Nov. 10, the commissioners adopted “The Precautionary Principle as a Guide for County Policy Development.” 

After having studied what the precautionary principle could do for Lane County during two invited presentations (one by a San Francisco city/county employee who effectively implemented that county’s 2003 precautionary principle ordinance) and two work sessions, the question the commissioners debated on Nov. 10 was whether to “endorse” the principle or “adopt” it. Lane County Performance Auditor Stewart Bollinger suggested endorsing the principle now and revisiting it later for potential adoption, but Commissioner Rob Handy warned that an “endorsed” policy would gather dust on the shelf, while “adoption” would put it to work now. Handy’s perspective was supported by Commissioners Sorenson and Fleenor, and ultimately by all five commissioners. 

So … what is the precautionary principle? As spelled out by our commissioners (and the principle has been spelled out differently in local ordinances to international treaties), five tenets are to be considered when bringing agenda items for commissioner decision-making. The five tenets might at first look like apple pie, but in fact they constitute a long-term perspective on human and environmental health too often lacking in our nation, and procedures designed to evoke good ideas and information from Lane County’s citizens.

The six tenets (abbreviated slightly here) of the Lane County Precautionary Principle policy are:

1. Anticipatory Action. County departments will consider how to prevent harm in the future as an integral part of their duties.

2. Right to Know. County departments will communicate complete and accurate information on potential human health and environmental impacts associated with their selection of products, services, operations or plans. 

3. Alternatives Assessment. County departments will examine a full range of alternatives and select alternatives offering significant improvements to human health and the environment. 

4. Full Cost Accounting. County departments evaluating potential alternatives have a duty to consider all significant short and long-term costs. 

5. Participatory Decision Process. County departments’ decisions applying the precautionary principle must be transparent, participatory and informed by the best available information. Citizens and resource users may have correct information not available internally; hence, their participation and information count as elements of “best available information.”

6. The County Administrative Procedures Manual will be amended to require the incorporation of tenets 1-5 into agenda cover memos.

Thus, when departments bring a proposal to the commissioners for action, the commissioners will want to see that the departments have sought public input, considered all reasonable alternatives, considered long-term as well as short-term costs and are recommending an alternative that offers significant improvements to health and the environment. This is a wise, look-at-options-before-leaping policy, and its door is wide open to public contributions.

Significantly, the county commissioners acknowledge that citizens and resource users 1) have a right to know all potential costs, benefits and impacts of a proposal; and 2) may have information and ideas not arising internally in the department. As tenet #5 notes, citizen information and ideas may in fact be the “best available information.”

The largest opportunity for citizens and civic groups will lie in offering alternatives to those being proposed by county departments whenever the departments are missing options that should be considered. Offering alternatives is also the most demanding task for citizens: to delve deeply enough into an issue to suggest a reasonable, environmentally sound and practical alternative. It’s infinitely easier to criticize a policy, project or purchase than to propose a better one, but the latter course leverages the most change.

Whether adopting the precautionary principle leads to better decisions in Lane County will depend on three sectors: commission attention to whether proposals by county departments embody the first five tenets; county department implementation of the spirit of the six tenets; and citizens’ and civic organizations’ timely submission to county departments of good information and sound alternatives for full consideration.

It’s great policy. Innovative contributions to it by active commissioners, county departments and citizens will turn the policy into great decisions.

Mary O’Brien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.