Rachel's Precaution Reporter #12  [Printer-friendly version]
November 16, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: The regulatory system boxes us in to a debate
about parts per million when we really want to discuss things like
better health, a decent future for our children, fairness, and
justice. A precautionary approach invites discussion of those larger

By Peter Montague

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is on the
hotseat over thousands of tons of potent cancer-causing chromium
wastes lying all over Hudson County -- the most densely populated
county in the nation's most densely populated state. Will this problem
disappear via "risk assessment" or will a precautionary approach be
taken and a real cleanup occur?

I attended a public hearing about these wastes in Jersey City Monday
night. Bradley Campbell -- commissioner of the N.J. DEP -- conducted
the meeting personally, so you know the political heat has been turned
up high, thanks to the Interfaith Community Organization in Jersey
City, and a courageous DEP whistleblower, Zoe Kelman. Read Zoe
Kelman's report here.

These highly carcinogenic chromium-VI wastes were discovered in 1985,
and no real remedy has been developed during 20 years of
hand-wringing. Chromium- VI is a potent carcinogen if you get it into
your lungs.

The DEP's current "solution" is to employ numerical "risk assessment"
to come up with a magic number that is a "safe" level of chromium in
soil. Most of the meeting Monday night was spent arguing about whether
240 parts per million (ppm) was the "safe" number, or whether it
should be 100 parts per million, or 30 parts per million.

DEP's role in all this is to press for leaving very large amounts of
industrial poisons in the ground, then putting a "cap" over the
poisons -- a plastic tarp, or a layer of asphalt, or a school
building. This is the approach that DEP has approved all across New
Jersey -- in Long Branch, Edison, Camden, Newark, Trenton, New
Brunswick, and many other cities and towns. There are 12,000
contaminated sites in New Jersey, and if DEP has its way, most of them
will be "capped" with a plastic tarp or a parking lot. These are not
permanent remedies -- they are a way of evading our responsibilities,
passing expensive toxic problems on to our children and grandchildren.

Attending numerous public meetings on cleanups has convinced me that
DEP's goal is to save money for polluters, because real cleanup costs
a lot of money.

The main assumption of the DEP's "risk-based approach" is that science
can determine a safe level of industrial poisons in the ground.

There are four serious problems with this risk-based approach:

1. Because people are exposed to many chemicals simultaneously
(chromium, PCBs, mercury, lead, second-hand smoke, diesel exhaust, and
much more), science has no way to determine a safe level of one
contaminant among many. The problem is simply too complex for science
to solve. No one can say what a safe level of exposure to chromium
might be, given all the other toxic exposures occurring
simultaneously. DEP's solution to this problem is to simply pretend
that the other exposures don't exist. This is a silly head-in-the-sand
approach and not scientific.

When it comes to cancer-causing chemicals -- such as chromium, coal
gas wastes, PCBs, lead, mercury, or many pesticides -- the only
exposure we can say is truly safe is zero exposure.

2. Because science cannot solve this complicated problem of multiple
exposures, the risk-based approach gets resolved through politics
masquerading as science. The first administrator of U.S. EPA, William
Ruckelshaus, said in 1984, "We should remember that risk assessment
data can be like the captured spy: If you torture it long enough, it
will tell you anything you want to know."

So the magic number that DEP declares safe is really a number intended
to achieve DEP's political goal -- to save money for the polluters,
perhaps to keep the polluters happy so they will contribute heavily at
election time.

3. Once DEP determines the magic number that is supposedly safe, large
amounts of industrial poisons are left in the ground, based on the
magic number. As time passes, those poisons leak out. Insects, worms,
reptiles, and small mammals carry them away; grass grows up in the
cracks and brings small amounts of poison to the surface; birds
transport them; they are carried on the wind as dust; rain moves them
around. There is actually a principle of physics that explains why all
this is inevitable: it is called the "second law of thermodynamics."
It tells us that things tend to disperse. A pot of poison left in the
ground will sooner or later disperse into the local environment.

So the net effect of the risk-based approach is to assure that
industrial poisons will be oozing into the environment of New Jersey
far into the future, all over the state. Because poor people are
disproportionately dumped on by toxic waste, DEP's policy serves to
keep poor people sick, fearful, and on the defensive. On the bright
side, it also keeps the cancer-treatment and pharmaceutical businesses
booming. (When you drive down Route 287 approaching New Brunswick, a
highway sign advertises the existence of The New Jersey Cancer
Institute -- cancer is definitely big business in New Jersey.)

To really fix these problems, the wastes must be excavated and
removed. They have to be detoxified or solidified and stored in large
above-ground reinforced-concrete buildings where they could be
monitored for the duration of the hazard -- or they have to be shipped
to the western states and buried deep in places were rain is scant.
(People in the western states don't favor this approach.)

These real cleanup activities would create a large number of jobs in
the construction trades, and would benefit public health. When
politicians say, "We can't afford to do this," they mean, "We don't
think these communities are worth the investment." In New Jersey, the
wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation on earth, we could
definitely afford to do it if we decided it was important. In general,
poor people tend not to contribute money to politicians, or even to
vote, so they are not considered important. If toxic waste is
discovered in Princeton or Upper Saddle River, you can be sure it does
not remain there long.

4. The risk-based approach keeps us fighting on our adversaries' turf.
Our adversaries designed the regulatory system to stabilize and
standardize the business environment -- to control their critics
(which is us), to make us predictable and therefore manageable.[1]

The function of the whole regulatory system is to force communities to
accept facilities or practices that they don't want. (This includes
not only toxic waste but also McMansion housing developments, big box
stores, and new highways.)

The community begins with broad concerns about quality of life,
fairness, justice, and a decent future for everyone's children. Then
the regulatory system funnels those broad, ethical concerns into a
debate over parts per million (or other narrow technical issues).

I watched this play out Monday night in Jersey City. The community
wants a healthy place to live, work, play, and raise children. The DEP
immediately focused the whole discussion into a question of 240 ppm
vs. 100 ppm vs. 30 ppm. The community's goals for "quality of life"
were never discussed -- DEP made sure of that. In the audience, the
chromium polluters, wearing silk suits, sat smiling as they watched
DEP focus everyone's attention on parts per million, and not on
community goals or ethical questions of right and wrong. DEP did the
polluters' dirty work for them. DEP has become the polluters' proxy.

So the main lesson of the evening was this: The regulatory system
regulates community activists far more than it regulates polluters
because the system makes community activists predictable and therefore
manageable. It restricts their response to trouble. It keeps them
arguing about parts per million instead of about community goals,
political power, coalition-building, and real change.

To get out of this box, we would need to take a completely different
approach -- one based on the precautionary principle.

The risk-based approach asks, "How much harm can we get away with?"
and it comes up with a magic number. A precautionary approach asks a
completely different question: "How much harm can we avoid?" And it
provokes a public discussion.

To me, the risk-based question is unethical because it is asked for
the sole purpose of exposing innocent people to dangerous chemicals,
like chromium.

The precautionary approach focuses on community goals and then asks
how to achieve those goals. It entails rich discussions about jobs,
local economic development, education, taxes, white privilege and
white supremacy, inequalities, justice -- and about organizing a real
political movement for change.

Are we ready to get out of that risk-based box? Or are we content to
pass thousands of tons of industrial poisons on to our grandchildren?


[1] Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism; A Reinterpretation of
American History, 1900-1916. NY: The Free Press, 1963.

[2] See Curtis C, Travis and Sheri T. Hester, "Global Chemical
Contamination," Environmental Science & Technology Vol. 25, No. 5
(May, 1991), pgs. 815-819. Available here.