Christine Todd Whitman Favors the Precautionary Principle
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More on the Precautionary Principle
Below are the remarks of EPA nominee Christine Todd
Whitman before the National Academy of Sciences last
October 13. Worth noting are Whitman's comments on
the precuationary principle and public policy.
(forward from Paul Orum, posted on CTW, 12/27/00)
REMARKS OF GOVERNOR CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN
"EFFECTIVE POLICY MAKING: THE ROLE OF GOOD SCIENCE"
SYMPOSIUM ON NUTRIENT OVER-ENRICHMENT OF COASTAL
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 13, 2000
Before I discuss the subject at hand, I want
to take a moment to ask one favor of you, since there
is such a large group gathered here of scientists and
policymakers who focus on nutrient pollution and its
effects: Please stop referring to that big area of
oxygen depletion in the Gulf of Mexico as New
Jersey-sized! I think the press sometimes confuses
"New Jersey-sized" with New Jersey itself, and we get
the blame. I understand the area is smaller this year,
maybe only the size of Connecticut or Delaware,
although I hate to foist off the moniker on another
In all seriousness, I am pleased to be here as
one who makes public policy to talk about how science
informs and shapes critical policy decisions.
Science has played a vital role in improving
America's environment - from targeting toxic and point
source pollution to designing control strategies. More
recently, science has helped us recognize the causes
of nonpoint pollution and the damage it does along our
coasts. You were the first to sound the alarm about
nutrient pollution along our coasts. Clearly, the role
of environmental science is becoming more critical
As you may know, I chair the Pew Oceans
Commission, which encourages policies and practices to
restore and protect living marine resources in U.S.
waters. A colleague on that commission, Dr. Jane
Lubchenco, has written eloquently about the need to
recognize and account for how humans dominate the
world's ecosystem. That, to me, is the great challenge
for environmental policy. How can we make this work -
how can we fulfill our industrial needs without
jeopardizing the health of our environment and,
Part of the solution lies with you, the
scientific community. You must continue to help
policymakers and the public understand the treasures
provided by nature that society has for so long taken
for granted: clean air, clean water, fish from the
You must also show us how our activities are
harming the ecosystems on which we depend for these
services. Last, and this is the hard part, you need to
help prioritize the threats and come up with
cost-effective strategies to address them. This will
be critical if we policymakers are to maintain public
trust for the actions that we take.
What must policymakers do to hold up our part
of the bargain?
First, we need to acknowledge that better
information does not come for free. We have an
obligation to provide more institutional and financial
support for environmental research, without wasting
money on duplicative efforts. We also need to better
identify emerging policy issues so you can tell us
what resources you will need to do the research before
it's too late.
As a policymaker, I am proud of how New Jersey
has responded to the environmental challenges that
science has identified.
We have cleaned up the Delaware River to the
point that the shad population is up more than 300%
from its low point in the 1970s. Over 87% of available
shellfish beds are open to harvesting, up from 75% in
1977. Ocean beach closings are down from more than 800
in 1988 to less than 20 per year in the past few
years. And New Jersey led the way in the push to end
ocean dumping of sewage sludge and establish uniform
national beach water quality standards.
Of course, there are still problems. Many of our
rivers and streams, for example, are still stressed.
We need to do more to combat nonpoint source pollution
and the sprawl development that exacerbates it.
To that end, New Jersey has in place one of
the nation's most comprehensive smart growth plans.
Among other benefits, our plan will save well over
100,000 acres of open space by channeling development
into planned growth areas and away from farmland and
sensitive ecological areas.
Has my state made progress? Yes. Do we still
have far to go to reach the health we want for our
rivers, coasts, and oceans? Absolutely. But we're not
alone. I'm dwelling on New Jersey's experience because
I know it best, but also because to a large extent it
mirrors what is going on around our nation.
In a sense, we have already harvested the
low-hanging fruit. By controlling direct sources of
air and water pollution, we have greatly improved
environmental quality and rescued some species from
the brink of extinction.
Now the work gets harder and more complex. We
face challenges such as controlling diffuse sources of
air and water pollution. Limiting disturbances of
wildlife habitat. Restoring degraded habitat and
depleted species. A key to our success will be how
well we manage growth, especially along our coasts
where we are seeing the greatest population increase.
We've made a start in my state. Earlier this
year, New Jersey adopted new rules to regulate major
development along our coast by encouraging development
in centers and discouraging or prohibiting it in
environmentally sensitive areas.
Now we plan to revamp the state's water
quality and watershed management rules. Under our
proposal, future decisions on extending sewer lines
and septic systems in New Jersey will depend on water
quality and quantity assessments and how those
projects integrate with our State development plan.
These changes, I hope, will enable New Jersey to slow
sprawl, protect sensitive lands, and improve water
quality - including the input of nutrients.
As states like New Jersey enter a new era of
public policy, with science playing such an important
role, I believe policymakers need to take a
precautionary approach to environmental protection. By
this I mean we must 1) acknowledge that uncertainty is
inherent in managing natural resources, 2) recognize
it is usually easier to prevent environmental damage
than to repair it later, and 3) shift the burden of
proof away from those advocating protection toward
those proposing an action that may be harmful.
For too long, we have waited until a crisis
occurs before we respond. How do we break this
boom-and-bust cycle? What criteria should policymakers
use in applying a precautionary approach? How much of
a margin of safety needs to be built in? Let me talk
about these issues in terms of three recent problems
in coastal environmental management.
First example: dredging. The disposal of
dredged material has long been a national problem, and
particularly acute in northern New Jersey. By the
early 1990s, we had reached an impasse between the
need to dredge the Port of New York/New Jersey, which
supports tens of thousands of jobs, and concerns about
the harm caused by dredged material being disposed off
the New Jersey coast.
The public was tired of our ocean being a
dumpsite for contaminated sediment. People were also
worried that toxins in the sediment were working their
way up the food chain to human beings. But the economy
of the region depended on a viable port.
In 1996, a deal was brokered among the federal
agencies involved in dredging that closed the Mud Dump
Site to materials unsuitable for ocean disposal. Under
this agreement, clean dredged material would be used
to cap the contaminated sediment, and we'd look for
other ways to dispose of contaminated material still
being dredged from the Port.
The question became how clean is clean enough?
Unfortunately, while various groups debated this
point, we often lost sight of the need to cap the
contaminated mud dump.
Anyone who follows dredging issues knows that
the science is both complicated and murky in this
area. Complex protocols have been developed to assess
the potential for bioaccumulation of toxins in marine
life. But it is not clear how well these tests relate
to what actually goes on in the marine environment,
nor how well they relate to the potential for human
beings to be exposed to these toxins through the food
chain. In short, results are very open to
Nonetheless, after a lengthy review, EPA
announced two weeks ago that it was reducing the
sediment standard for bioaccumulation of PCBs in
bottom-dwelling worms - a key benchmark - from 400
parts per billion to 113.
Everyone got very excited about this decision,
with environmentalists saying all dredged material
should go upland and with some in the labor and the
port community questioning the science. There's been
no official reaction yet from the worms. But given the
uncertainty of the science and the level of insult
that the marine environment has already received from
years of ocean dumping, I certainly support a change
that builds in an additional margin of safety.
At the same time, I recognize the frustration
that people feel. It took four years to reach
agreement on PCBs in worms, but the EPA still hasn't
reached consensus on new standards for mercury,
dioxin, lead, and other contaminants - and won't for
at least another year. The EPA says we can rely on
existing standards until then, and so we will, but
that leaves policymakers in a difficult position of
approving permits for dumping materials that a year
from now might be declared unsafe.
Another example outside of New Jersey but
familiar to most of you concerns harmful algal blooms
such as the outbreaks of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria
that have occurred in recent years. This organism has
a unique and complicated biology, and the
understanding of its life history and toxicity are
still evolving. At the time of outbreaks of the
microbe in the Chesapeake Bay in 1997, some waters
were closed to fishing in an attempt to limit human
contact with Pfiesteria or seafood contaminated with
it. The fishery closures prevented a small number of
fish from being caught. But the real economic damage
was the slump in seafood sales because of public
perceptions that seafood coming from those waters
might be unsafe to eat.
Later studies indicated no effect on seafood
safety from Pfiesteria. But does that mean that the
actions taken in 1997 were inappropriate? Based on the
information available, I believe it was prudent to err
on the side of public health. Further, had waters not
been closed and someone became gravely ill from direct
contact or from contaminated seafood, the long-term
damage to the seafood and tourist industries would
have been much worse.
Science and public policy operate on different
time scales. Scientists could not instantly produce
results about the toxicity of seafood exposed to
Pfiesteria, or determine when and where Pfiesteria
would become toxic just because that research was
suddenly required for public health decisions.
Nonetheless, public health officials could not wait
for this information; they had to act based on the
best information available at the time.
A third example involves the horseshoe crab
fishery. These creatures have for eons spawned in the
sandy beaches of estuaries, and probably for those
same eons shorebirds have feasted on their rich eggs.
They are also important in the diet of the threatened
Atlantic loggerhead turtle.
Horseshoe crabs are harvested in limited
amounts for the biomedical industry, which uses their
blood to test the safety of new drugs, and they are
also harvested for bait in the conch and eel
fisheries. In recent years, the harvest for bait has
grown as the conch and eel fisheries have expanded.
The available science does not show a sharp
decline in the horseshoe crab population. But what we
know about the life history of horseshoe crabs,
combined with historical evidence from when they were
harvested for use as fertilizer, suggests that they
are vulnerable to overfishing and that when the
population does crash, it takes decades to recover.
Policymakers decided that these considerations,
combined with a concern about the effects on
shorebirds and other species, warranted a conservative
After reviewing the best available
information, and citing these concerns, the Atlantic
States Marine Fisheries Commission ordered a 25%
reduction for each state in the horseshoe crab bait
fishery. It also recommended that Maryland and New
Jersey continue voluntary additional reductions in the
Some took the view that until the science can
show that the fishery is harming the horseshoe crab
population, the harvest ought to continue at current
levels. This is the inverse of the precautionary
approach, but it reflects the real concerns of
commercial fishermen and all those whom their
employment affects - from the local banker who holds
their mortgage to the people who repair the boats to
the grocers in their neighborhoods.
I've been vocal on this issue. I have strongly
supported the Commission's recommendations and asked
the National Marine Fisheries Service to help reduce
the horseshoe crab catch by closing a substantial area
off Delaware Bay to the offshore fishery before the
fall conch fishery reaches its peak.
What's more, I have said we need better
science on the issue - and must pay for it. That's why
I enlisted the governors of Maryland and Delaware to
share with me the cost of supporting $125,000 in new
research on the horseshoe crab. Our goal is to obtain
better information on which to base a sustainable
fishery and to make sure there are enough crabs left
over for the animals that also depend on them.
What lessons can we learn from these examples?
One is that the real world application of the
precautionary approach is not what some would like it
to be. The absence of certainty is not an excuse to do
nothing. In the case of Pfiesteria, the protection of
public health could not wait for conclusive results.
Although economic damage had to be considered when
deciding the horseshoe crab issue, it was not the
deciding factor. In the case of dredging, we can't
afford to shut down our ports to wait for scientific
A second lesson is that we should build in a
margin of safety based on the level of uncertainty
surrounding our information. We must account for the
damage that might be caused by miscalculating.
Regarding Pfiesteria, further investigation
showed a very small risk of contaminated seafood - but
no one knew that when the decision had to be made.
When the horseshoe crab population crashed in the
1940s, it was decades before it came back even in the
near-absence of fishing pressure. What's more, we now
understand how shorebirds depend on these crabs, which
adds another factor urging caution.
Last, we must realize that science and public
policy proceed at fundamentally different time lines.
If we want good science, we cannot rush it. (Indeed,
that's why my state is developing a coastal research
agenda to identify short- and long-term research
needs.) However, environmental policy should always be
based on the soundest information available at the
time. If we keep these factors in mind as we face the
challenges of this new century, I believe we will
emerge with a much more effective, sustainable
The good news for science is that people
increasingly recognize a healthy environment is
inseparable from economic well-being and quality of
life. However, the demands on our natural resources
are also increasing. We need good science more than
ever so we can use and sustain natural resources while
maintaining the public trust and the integrity of our
To do that will require a partnership. We who
make policy need to give you the tools, especially
funding, to do your job, and we need to let you know
clearly and early about emerging research needs. And,
as I've said before, you must help policymakers sort
through all the scientific uncertainties and all the
demands on our environment to prioritize the
information we do have at any given time. In New
Jersey, our partnership is growing. I hope it's a
partnership that grows stronger by the year.
More on the Precautionary Principle
Working Group on Community Right-to-Know
218 D Street, SE; Washington, DC 20003
Phone: 202-544-9586; Fax: 202-546-2461
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