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Precautionary Principle – Number 192

Local Precaution

March-April 2010


I. Another look at Ann Arbor's State of the Environment Report  by Barbara Lucas, AnnArbor.comThe precautionary principle is one of the guiding principles in Ann Arbor, Michigan's Environmental Action Plan.

II. Athens researches for coal ash substitute for roads  by Cassie Diltz, College Green"It's our responsibility to take the precautionary principle," said Elahu Gosney, an at-large representative for Athens City Council.

III. Experts call for steps to protect elephants  The Peninsula (Qatar)

"We implore Parties [to CITES] to apply the precautionary principle and reject the Tanzanian and Zambian proposals — it is critical to protect the long-term future of African elephants."

IV. As Europe Reopens Skies, a New Cloud Looms  by Alan Cowell, Steven Erlanger and Nicola Clark, New York Times

"Europe is the victim of the precautionary principle . . . an uncoordinated overreaction to possible risk."

V. Marcellus Shale: Spills of drilling chemicals worry experts  by Krisy Gashler, Ithaca [NY] Journal

The real story is that Apple is up to 5.1 on the Greenpeace scale but still trails Nokia and others.

VI. Advocates laud Court rules protecting environment Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, CBCP News

"The Philippine Supreme Court has incorporated the precautionary principle into its Rules of Procedures for Environmental Cases."


I. Another look at Ann Arbor's State of the Environment Report

by Barbara Lucas, College Green,, March 23, 2010

People who have grown up in Ann Arbor, or who have lived here a long time, may take the progressive stance of the updated "State of Our Environment" report for granted. But if you aren't "from around these parts" you may note when reading it over that it firmly takes some steps that other municipalities are far from approaching. Indeed, being cutting edge is a stated goal:

"The City of Ann Arbor strives to be at the forefront of sustainable living through its daily operations, capital improvements and purchase of products."

Being at the forefront sometimes entails doing things that are potentially controversial. For instance, the State of the Environment Report treats human-induced climate change as fact, and describes in detail the predicted effects of climate change in Ann Arbor by the end of the 21st century.

The report takes the stand that the city is not going to wait for direction from above on this matter: "Although the United States is not participating in the Kyoto Protocol nor regulating greenhouse gases at a national level, Ann Arbor has decided that it is in both our current and future generations’ best interest to lessen our impact."

Waiting and reacting is not the path this report favors, rather the Precautionary Principle is one of the guiding Environmental Action Plan Principles: "Precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." This principle is not well-accepted in our country — as opposed to in Europe, where it shapes environmental and health policies at all levels.

Another guiding principle the city has embraced is inherent in this Action Plan Principle: "Needs can be met while maintaining environmental quality, public health, and the availability of natural resources for future generations."

In other words, environmental health can be achieved at the same time as economic health. This is a core controversy in a society where the pursuit of the American dream is often seen as mutually exclusive with the pursuit of environmental goals.

A desire to avoid controversy often results in inaction. The issue of invasive plants is a small example, but worth looking at: In Michigan, some people have been frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress in handling the problem of horticultural invasives, i.e. plants commonly for sale that spread from our yards into natural areas, crowding out vulnerable native species. Many other states have adopted grandfathering regulations, which take the most problematic invasives off the market, but allow a few years for them to be gradually removed from sale as stock becomes depleted (so as not to hurt the growers).

Instead of waiting for our state government to adopt such legislation, Ann Arbor published an invasive species list which includes many common plants that are big sellers for the nursery industry, such as Japanese Barberry, Periwinkle, English Ivy, and Norway Maple. The city has gone so far as to cut down Norway Maples in area parks. Again, Ann Arbor is practicing the precautionary principle vs. waiting for direction from above.

The city's stated goal of increasing density to lessen environmental impact and help support public transit use is another potential can of worms. Much controversy surrounds higher density and new construction, especially when it means taller buildings or significant change. The city is potentially tangling with historic preservationists by saying: "New buildings are often more energy efficient and use less water than their older counterparts."

Another departure from the prevailing winds: many of Ann Arbor's Environmental Action Plan Goals emphasize that the automobile should not be front and center, people should be. Convincing people to get out of their cars (especially in a region where most have grown up dependent on them) is no easy task.

The city's stated goal of using 100 percent renewable energy also likely has its critics. There are many that see America’s coal and gas reserves as relatively plentiful and accessible, and don't agree that limited financial resources should be spent on solar, wind and battery technologies.

Time and again the Ann Arbor city government has chosen to "stick its neck out." Many influences have led to this pro-environment mind-set. The city is home to a world class university with a strong environmental program, home to the founder of environmental education (the late Dr. William Stapp), home to a multitude of important and active environmental organizations. It's no surprise that Ann Arbor ranked #12 in the Natural Resources Defense Council's "Smarter City" contest, honoring cities that "succeed in making their cities more efficient, responsible and sustainable" and resulting in "smarter places for business and healthier places to live."

There is definitely room for improvement. The city's air and water is not as clean as it should be or could be. Total per capita waste generated, electricity used and vehicle miles driven are all increasing in Ann Arbor (as elsewhere). The commercial recycling rate is only 15 percent.

Even within the actively pro-environment community, there is controversy over how best to achieve goals, especially as economic constraints limit options. But for better or worse, this report makes it clear that Ann Arbor is not going to avoid controversy by back-burnering its environmental problems - rather it is going to face them head-on.

Barbara Lucas is an environmental media specialist at Washtenaw County - She can be reached at


II. Athens researches for coal ash substitute for roads

by Cassie Diltz, College Green

By Cassie Diltz, College Green, March 4, 2010

As the winter snow melts away, those living in the City of Athens might notice something different covering the roads. Instead of local coal ash used for icy roads this winter season, the city started using a new grit and salt mixture after a series of tests showed that coal ash contains high levels of arsenic. The use of this potentially hazardous material led to public unrest and political action.

Residents and city council members had reason for concern. Coal ash contains trace metals and contaminants, including arsenic, cadmium and copper. Cadmium poisoning affects the lungs, brain and liver, while copper and zinc contain low levels of radiation. These elements are not only harmful to humans but to local animal and plant life as well.

The coal ash from Athens' coal-burning power plant was tested as a dry material last February by Microbac Laboratories, Inc, and went through several tests, including a leaching process, which is used to see if toxins will leach out of certain matter. Abnormal levels of arsenic were discovered in the coal ash, though the element did not leach out under laboratory conditions. However, the City of Athens decided to err on the side of caution.

Because of these test results, community members and Athens City Council decided to search for an alternative to coal ash.

"It's our responsibility to take the precautionary principle," said Elahu Gosney, an at-large representative for Athens City Council.

Local citizens encouraged city officials to find a coal ash substitute.

"Residents were concerned about the toxicity of it. It's really nasty black stuff that gets ground up on the street. People drag it into their houses and it gets on their pets," Gosney said.

Athens has used 1,000-1,500 tons of coal ash each year until it was decided to make the shift. This winter, to replace the coal ash, the city has used a similar quantity of a small grit called Number 9, which is slightly larger than sand but smaller than a pea. The grit is obtained from quarries or excavated from the Hocking River and, like coal ash, is paired with about 1,200 tons of salt to keep Athens' road conditions drivable.

Little research has been done on the environmental impacts of the new alternative. There is some concern about the weight of the material because it can clog storm systems. The mixture ends up on the sides of the roads where it gradually builds up. In some areas, it will simply wash away, but in other areas where the material accumulates Athens city workers will clean up Number 9 with a street cleaner and take it to the landfill.

One disadvantage of the substitute for coal ash is that it comes with a higher cost to city taxpayers.

"The coal ash was free," said Andy Stone, city engineer and director of Public Works.

Stone pointed to the switch as the cause of costs incurred to the city's taxpayers, but he noted that Athens had spoken: moving away from coal ash needed to happen.

"The mayor directed me to do it and there were a number of people in the community that were concerned. It's what I do. I'm a public servant. It's the will of people so it must be done," Stone said.

The environmental threats posed by coal ash extend beyond its impact on humans.

Many animals consume melting snow, and ingesting the toxins in the snow can have dangerous effects, said Natalie Kruse, assistant professor in Environmental Studies at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

"It's probably not the nastiest stuff you've ever put on the road, but it's not something you want plants and animals to use as their source of water," Kruse said.

Once chemicals from the ash get into the soil, it can accumulate there for long periods of time. Plants take in chemicals from the soil, and eventually the metals enter the food chain. Some metals are worse than others. Levels of pH, a measurement used to express the acidity or alkalinity of water, determine what degree of harm the metals can cause, and these levels depend on current soil conditions.

"It can build up in the soil and get into the plants. It's possible the chemicals are part of the system now," said Jared Deforest, assistant professor in soil bio-geo-chemistry at Ohio University.

Kruse says the coal ash should be regulated by the EPA, and is very pleased that the City has replaced it with a less harmful substitute, despite the fact that Number 9 is also unregulated.

Deforest argues that the use of salt is worse than the chemicals of local coal ash. Sodium affects plants’ capacity to hold water and can also cause salt burn, a chemical process that occurs when salt is added to soil. The salt can displace other important nutrients in the soil, such as calcium and potassium, causing soil fertility to decrease over time.

Deforest agrees with the City's decision to use an alternative to coal ash: "When it comes to human health, I don't want to breathe in the particulate matter of that coal ash."

What is the fate of the coal ash no longer spread across Athens pavement? It is picked up by other townships in Athens County, said OU Sustainability Coordinator Sonia Marcus.

The City of Athens continues to search for the best way to keep streets drivable while also free of heavy metals. For the time being, Athens citizens have shown that they are willing to pay monetary costs to mitigate long-term environmental hazards.

Also Check Out…

Bottoms Up: The Dirt on Coal Ash: this story was written by Jessica Blakely and Katherine Bercik for an E.W. Scripps School of Journalism course titled Environmental and Science Journalism.


III. Experts call for steps to protect elephants

The Peninsula (Qatar)

DOHA: World renowned elephant scientists and researchers presented new data on world’s elephant population and the volume of ilegal ivory trade at the 15th Conference of the Parties (CoP 15) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting here yesterday, calling for Parties to reject downlisting and ivory sale proposals.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, Conservation biologist, Dr Sam Wasser and elephant research specialist Dr Joyce Poole of ElephantVoices and the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, presented data on the precarious state of elephant populations in Zambia and Tanzania and the urgent need for protection of elephants.

"The data are clear — Tanzania and Zambia are among the largest sources of, and conduits for, the illegal ivory trade in Africa," said Dr Wasser. "Both the Tanzanian and Zambian elephants meet the biological criteria to remain on Appendix I. Moreover, petitions for one-off sales encourage poaching by increasing anticipation of legal trade."

"We disagree with the Secretariat's statement that the biological criteria show that Loxodonta africana does not meet the criteria for retention in Appendix I," said Iain Douglas-Hamilton. "There are no figures available for the Tanzanian elephant population three generations ago with which to compare present estimates."

There has been a massive drop of over 65 percent of the elephants since 1979.

"After a period of recovery following the 1989 ivory trade ban, there is once again an ominous decline of 30,000 elephants in the last three years. On evidence of recent surveys, cited in the Panel of Experts, Tanzania may be at a tipping point poised for massive declines."

The experts presented further evidence on Zambian elephants indicating the very high probability that the population has declined by more than 50 percent over the last 75 years, meeting the criterion for retention in Appendix I.

"It is absolutely imperative that Parties examine all the data relating to these elephants, if they do it is clear that downlistings cannot be considered at this time," said Dr Poole. "We implore Parties to apply the precautionary principle and reject the Tanzanian and Zambian proposals — it is critical to protect the long-term future of African elephants."


IV. As Europe Reopens Skies, a New Cloud Looms

by Alan Cowell, Steven Erlanger and Nicola Clark, New York Times

LONDON — European aviation authorities began trying to implement a plan to ease six days of severe flight restrictions on Tuesday, but a new ash cloud reported to be spreading south from the erupting volcano in Iceland threatened to undermine some of their efforts.

The reopening of air space was cautious, patchy and unpredictable, underscoring the piecemeal nature of the European response to the unparalleled disruption that has drawn criticism from the airline industry, spread confusion among marooned travelers and stilled many of Europe’s busiest flight-paths.

The chaos has now lasted twice as long as the closure of American air space after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Britain seemed to be hardest-hit by the continued perils of volcanic ash, which can damage jet engines.

The Eurocontrol air traffic agency in Brussels said it expected some 55 to 60 percent of flights over Europe to go ahead on Tuesday, a marked improvement over the last few days. By midmorning, 10,000 of Europe's 27,500 daily flights were scheduled to go, the agency said.

Lufthansa, the German airline, said it would operate all scheduled intercontinental flights to and from Germany on Tuesday as well as "some" intra-European and domestic flights. The German flag carrier said it expected to be able to add more European services later in the day.

France said its airports would handle a small proportion of their usual traffic.

The French civil aviation authority said that it had re-opened airspace in the southern part of the country as of 8 a.m. and would allow domestic flights within designated corridors between Paris and airports in Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nice. International flights to and from Paris would also be required to fly within the designated safe corridors, it said in a statement.

The French daily Le Monde quoted the transport minister Jean-Louis Borloo as saying that empty planes would fly those routes first to make sure the pollution level was not too high for safety. Seats on subsequent flights would be allocated initially to passengers with a "desperate need" to fly, he said.

But British authorities said that only Scottish airports would offer limited service, largely to the islands off the Scottish coast. Manchester airport, in the north of England, said it would be closed until Tuesday evening at the earliest.

Initially, airport operators further south in Britain had said they hoped to restore some services later in the day. Then, another eruption of the volcano in Iceland sent a new ash cloud spreading toward Britain, the British air traffic control agency said early Tuesday.

By mid-morning, the air traffic control agency said the situation was "dynamic" and "variable." A second statement did not refer specifically to the new cloud of ash reported earlier. While British airspace above 20,000 feet would be open for six hours on Tuesday, the agency said, "restrictions will remain in place over the rest of U.K. airspace below 20,000 feet," presumably meaning that planes would not be able to land or take off from most airports.

British Airways said it would not operate any European flights on Tuesday. The carrier said it was still planning intercontinental flights starting at 4 p.m. local time "subject to the full and permanent opening of airspace."

The air traffic agency said it would make a further announcement at around 3 p.m. Tuesday, London time.

News reports said Switzerland had reopened its airspace, while Poland shut down four airports on Tuesday that had been operating a day earlier. Hungary introduced a partial flight ban and Ireland said its airspace would be closed at least until midday because of the new ash cloud heading south, Reuters reported.

In disparate ways, European governments sought to ease the inconvenience — and mounting cost — for passengers stranded in far-flung destinations.

The French consulate in Hong Kong urged French residents to open up their private homes to stranded compatriots. With an estimated 150,000 citizens stranded abroad, Britain's Royal Navy sent a warship to Santander in northern Spain to pick up troops returning from Afghanistan along with a handful of civilians, and planned to deploy two more vessels in the English Channel.

Several airports in southern Europe — notably Madrid, Athens and Rome — continued to serve as impromptu hubs for the rest of the Continent on Tuesday. The disruption of flights has stranded tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of travelers and cost airlines hundreds of millions of dollars.

The closures are causing major financial strains for Asian airlines. Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines in Kuala Lumpur, said in a statement on Tuesday that flights to and from Europe accounted for about 15 per cent of total passenger revenues for the region’s main carriers, worth some $40 million a day.

The Australian carrier Qantas said Tuesday it was canceling all its flights between Asia and Europe through Thursday.

The agreement by European transport ministers on a plan to coordinate the opening of airspace followed a barrage of criticism that the European Union had failed a fresh test of leadership — a new blow to its ability to act decisively during emergencies including swine flu, the financial crisis and the problem of Greek debt.

Most noisily, the head of the International Air Transport Association said before the announcement to partially lift the aviation ban that "the decision Europe has made is with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, no leadership." The industry group's director general and chief executive, Giovanni Bisignani, went farther, saying that the crisis is a "European embarrassment" and "a European mess."

Under Monday's agreement, the aviation authorities planned to carve airspace above the Continent into three zones: one closest to the volcano that would completely restrict air traffic; another zone that would set up partial restrictions on flights; and a third zone, free of ash, where flights could resume completely.

European airspace is coordinated by Eurocontrol, an intergovernmental agency, not by the European Union, and each European government controls its own airspace, in part because of military and defense requirements.

The scattered approach to the crisis added to concerns that the region has no effective, collective mechanism for dealing with aviation problems.

But the real question, said Jean Quatremer, the European Union correspondent of the French newspaper Libération, is whether the European Union is competent or not, "and at what point should the E.U. activate itself?"

Fabrice Pothier, the director of Carnegie Europe, the Brussels center for the Carnegie Endowment, said that the ash problem grew slowly and was not expected to last so long.

But, he said, politicians have the duty to give their citizens the confidence that crises are being managed for the collective good.

The technicians at Eurocontrol reacted quickly, Mr. Pothier said, but not the politicians. "The problem for Europe is that we have no political early-warning system, to say we have to come together politically. Technicians are fine, but on big issues you need leaders to make ultimate decisions, and that's where we’re always a bit short, a bit late."

David Henderson, of the Association of European Airlines, said that governments were slow to coordinate and make decisions to close airspace based on the dimensions of the ash cloud, rather than trying to measure its density. "There's no transparency, and we don't know what's governing the decisions," he said.

Other analysts pointed to a general European obsession with safety, which is called "the precautionary principle." Essentially, European governments and their constituents believe that if the safety of something is not proven, it should not be allowed.

"Europe is the victim of the precautionary principle," Mr. Pothier said, of "an uncoordinated overreaction to possible risk." That led to a huge oversupply in swine flu vaccine, for instance, and, as Mr. Quatremer noted, the European aversion to genetically modified grain.

"It's the same principle for the ash cloud," he said. "We fear everything and want maximum safety for our citizens," just like the way in the United States, he said, the society will go to extremes to protect citizens from terrorism. "No one can argue with security," he said.

For Kenneth J. Button, a professor at George Mason University's School of Public Policy and a transportation economist, the airline association’s criticism is expected as it continues to push for a "Single European Sky" program, as it has done for years.

"The E.U. has no legal responsibility at all; the responsibility is with the countries," Mr. Button said. "Everyone is being extremely cautious, because no country wants to be responsible for a crash," and the government, not the airline, would be blamed for a crash.

Alan Cowell reported from London, and Steven Erlanger and Nicola Clark from Paris. Mark McDonald, James Kanter, Nadim Audi, Scott Sayare and Bettina Wassener contributed reporting.


V. Marcellus Shale: Spills of drilling chemicals worry experts

by Krisy Gashler, Ithaca [NY] Journal

DRYDEN -- Two chemists and an endocrinologist spoke Tuesday night about the science and potential health effects of unconventional natural gas drilling to roughly 100 people at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

The lecture was sponsored by Shaleshock, a citizens' group that opposes hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale without greater study and more regulatory oversight.

Decisions about gas drilling will be guided by the state's experience with environmental cleanups such as Love Canal in Buffalo, but also by an understanding of how the country's current energy sources affect our foreign policy, said William Klepack, a Dryden physician and medical director for the Tompkins County Health Department.

Even with no additional chemicals added by gas companies, the water that flows back from hydro-fracked wells has enough heavy metals -- and often radioactivity -- to be classified as hazardous waste, said Ron Bishop, a biochemist at SUNY Oneonta who has also worked in construction with gas drillers.

But because of state and federal exemptions granted to the natural gas industry, the water does not have to be tested or handled as carefully as it would be if it were created by another industry, Bishop said. In some parts of the Marcellus Shale, radioactive materials occur naturally at levels 250 times the level normally regulated by environmental agencies -- but natural gas drillers aren't even required to test for radioactivity, he said.

"Call your legislators," he said.

The precautionary principle in science and medicine asserts that if an action could cause severe, irreversible harm, the burden of proof is on those who want to carry out the action, said Thomas Shelley, a chemist and chemical safety and hazardous materials specialist. Based on this principle, the European Union has banned use of hundreds of chemicals that are used across the U.S., Shelley said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation's draft regulations on gas drilling list 257 distinct chemicals that could be used in hydraulic fracturing; compound-specific toxicity data on many of those chemicals and their effects on human health and the environment are "very limited," he said.

"We're looking at a vast unknown," Shelley said. "Remember the precautionary principle? We don't see any of it here."

Of the fluid used to fracture a natural gas well to release the gas, 99.5 percent is water and sand, Shelley said. However, because one well can require 3 to 5 million gallons of water, that equates to 10 to 30 tons of chemicals, Bishop said.

The risk with chemical use is not from the actual hydrofracking process but from transport and disposal, Bishop said.


VI. Advocates laud Court rules protecting environment

Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, CBCP News April 18, 2010

QUEZON CITY, April 18, 2010—A network of environmental advocates have lauded the Supreme Court's promulgation of a set of rules that would protect the integrity of creation and hasten resolution of environmental cases.

The Supreme Court on April 14 has published the "Rules of Procedures for Environmental Cases" that will take effect 15 days later.

Kalookan Bishop Deogracias Iniguez, Jr., who currently heads the CBCP Public Affairs Committee, said the new rules "should lead to increased vigilance and action to defend the integrity of creation from destructive activities such as dumping, mining and logging, to cite a few."

"I hope that affected communities will take advantage of the fortified legal recourse to uphold the sanctity of the ecosystems and the common good," Iñiguez said.

Legal luminaries and environmental activists have given their input in the development of the Rules. They also participated in consultative processes organized by the Supreme Court.

"We hail the Puno court for providing our citizens with new tools to expedite their quest for the elusive environmental justice," said lawyer Amang Mejia, counsel of the EcoWaste Coalition, an environmental network that has previously commended Chief Justice Reynato Puno for his "green judicial activism."

"It is now up to the people to speak out, go to the courts and test the Rules to seek remedies against crimes committed against Mother Nature," he emphasized.

The Rules will cover cases involving the enforcement of the country's environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Act, Oil Spill Compensation Act, National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, Indigenous People's Rights Act,Philippine Fisheries Code, Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act, to name a few.

The Supreme Court has included a precautionary principle into the Rules, stating that "when there is a lack of full scientific certainty in establishing a causal link between human activity and environmental effect, the court shall apply the precautionary principle in resolving the case before it."

"With this, we anticipate the courts hewing arguments and decisions espousing that the protection of the people's health and the environment takes precedence over personal or corporate gains," noted Eileen Sison, NGO representative to the National Solid Waste Management Commission.

Atty. Golly Ramos of the Global Legal Action on Climate Change also noted that the Rules "will transform the legal profession and the practice of law in our country and instill a mindset of sustainability among stakeholders."

"The wide gap existing between the law and reality will be narrowed down as the trail-blazing remedies such as the writ of kalikasan, writ of continuing mandamus, citizen suit and anti-SLAPP, afforded to the people, ecological stewards and dedicated civil servants will render the violation or non-compliance of environmental laws a very expensive and tedious option," Ramos pointed out. (CBCPNews)