Bill could introduce precaution into environmental law
By Christopher Root
Gazette staff writer
Legislative Gazette, Albany N.Y. April 19, 2004
Following the maxim "better safe than sorry," a New York assemblyman has
sponsored legislation that would radically change the way the state addresses
technology-related risk management.
The legislation proposed by Assemblyman Alexander B. "Pete" Grannis,
D-Manhattan, draws influence from European policy and calls for a precautionary
approach in assessing risks associated with New York State funded research and
Grannis' bill calls on the developers of technology to prove the safety of
their product instead of waiting for corroborated and overwhelming scientific
evidence that a product causes harm to humans and the environment.
"[The bill] shifts the burden to those who are the proponents of
technology to demonstrate that some level of foresight was used," said Paul Bray,
temporary council for the assembly and drafter of the bill.
The law would enable a concerned citizen to submit a petition to the state
office of science, technology and academic research advisory council to review a
technology. The technology would then be analyzed to determine if the
petitioner's concern was merited from both an environmental and public health
perspective. If it were determined that the concern was legitimate, a review would be
conducted by an independent scientific institution to determine whether or
not state funding should be terminated.
Bray said that Grannis' precaution bill is not as revolutionary in New
York as it might seem. Bray noted that New York State environmental impact law,
specifically the State Environmental Quality Review Act, calls for a very
Included in the SEQRA, part 617.1 of the New York Environmental Conservation
Rules and Regulations adopted in 1995, is a call for all state agencies to
regard themselves as stewards of the environment. Additionally, the lawmakers
wrote that the law's purpose was to incorporate a consideration of environmental
factors in the planning and decision-making process at "the earliest possible
The precautionary principle that Grannis' bill draws influence from has
its roots in European thought on environmental policy. The principle gained
international political legitimacy at the 1992 Rio Conference on the Environment
and was included in European Union's 1997 Amsterdam treaty. It has not,
however, been met with as much enthusiasm in the United States.
The precautionary principle has been defined numerous times and in
different ways, and the lack of a consistent definition is sometimes viewed as one
of its political weaknesses.
According to Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director at the Science and
Environmental Health Network, all the definitions contain the same three
elements: plausible harm, scientific uncertainty and precautionary action.
"When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human
health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect
relationships are not fully established scientifically," is how scientists,
philosophers, lawyers and environmentalists defined the principle at a 1998
conference on precaution.
Critics of the precautionary principle say that it stunts technological
progress and is not based on sound science. In a lecture last year, John D.
Graham, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulator Affairs at the
federal Office of Management and Budget wondered if important technologies
such as electricity, the internal combustion engine, plastics and pharmaceuticals
would have been invented had a precautionary principle been in place in 1850.
"By its very nature, technological innovation occurs through a process of
trial-and-error and refinement, and this process could be disrupted by an
inflexible version of the precautionary principle," said Graham.
Raffensperger dismissed Graham's claim.
"[Graham's speech] that presupposes a real failure of imagination that we
could invent technologies which would not destroy the earth," said
Raffensperger also disagreed with criticism that questions the scientific
validity of the precautionary principle. According to Raffensperger, those
opponents are thinking of an "18th century version of science that does not take
into account scientific uncertainty."
"We don't feel we have to wait for that last nail in the coffin before we
take action," said Raffensperger.
Graham and Raffensperger agree that the United States has suffered in the
past because of a reluctance to take preventative action in the field of public
health. In his speech, Graham cited tobacco, lead, and asbestos as examples of
substances the United States waited too long to regulate properly.
"Historians teach us that the major health problems from these substances
could have been reduced or prevented altogether if decision-makers had reacted to
early scientific indications of harm in a precautionary way," Graham said in
"We want the dead bodies on the street and we want to count them before we
take action," said Raffensperger, describing prevailing attitudes on
environmental and epidemiological problems.
James K. Hammitt, professor of Economics and Decision Making at Harvard and
Director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis says he sees the precautionary
principle's value as a means of changing current environmental and public
health policy to make it more preventative and proactive. However, he cautioned
that because it is impossible to scientifically prove something does not exist,
it would not be possible for companies to prove that their products pose zero
risk to human health and the environment.
He also warned of the risk of trading one problem for another, mentioning
the varying risks from different types of energy production such as coal and
"Most of the time when you reduce one risk, you are increasing another risk,"
Grannis' bill was originally submitted to the governmental operations
committee last year and was submitted again early this year.
Bray said it is becoming more important to monitor academic research
because of the amount of public funding that goes into it.
"This would build in a mechanism whereby public interest can be looked at
and analyzed," said Bray.
Grannis described the advantages of his precautionary bill an broader
"In the end, it is a wiser way," said Grannis.
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