MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Environmental Health -- Shouldn't It Be A Priority?

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

January 23-25, 1998 at Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin

The Precautionary Principle sounds like common sense. If you want to do something that has the potential to harm the public, you, the proponent of the activity, should prove that it will not cause harm. But when have you ever heard that happen? An activity (landfill, incinerator, etc.) is usually approved for some economic benefit (usually to benefit the polluter, not the community). What if it endangers human health? You, the public, must prove it! But you the public have to pay for health experts, not the polluter. Is it any surprise that many hazardous activities occur in low-income, minority communities that are given little opportunity to object?

This issue of Voices introduces some of the problems affecting communities, including dealing with hazardous waste landfills and farmworkers poisoned in the fields from pesticide spraying. We also highlight Navajo communities struggling with past health affects of uranium mining, trying to stop future mining, and working to prevent future problems though a health education program.

Sec. 101. The San Francisco Precautionary Principle:
...The Precautionary Principle requires a thorough exploration and a careful analysis of a wide range of alternatives. Using the best available science, the Precautionary Principle requires the selection of the alternative that presents the least potential threat to human health and the City's natural systems. Public participation and an open and transparent decision making process are critical to finding and selecting alternatives...

Adopted as City and County Policy June 17, 2003
By the San Francisco Board of Supervisors

We also focus on some other potentially dangerous situations: the Modern Pit Facility and Los Alamos National Laboratory's (LANL's) Biological Lab. The Modern Pit Facility resurrects the Cold War production of the "pits" for nuclear bombs, and it could renew the arms race. At a time when the federal government is having difficulty cleaning up old weapons facilities, it wants to create a new bomb plant, so future generations will have to pay to clean it up. LANL's Biological Lab is designed for biological agents such as anthrax, and includes genetic manipulation/creation of new biologicals. But such activity is just a short step away from a Biological Weapons Program — something outlawed internationally. LANL's current operations have proven safety failures. With a new, expanded mission, LANL's failures could have even greater impact on the communities that surround it.

However, there is some good news along with the bad. The New Mexico Environment and Health Coalition, a network of community groups created in August 2002, has made one of its objectives an effort to "to improve communication and cooperation between NM Environment Department (NMED), NM Department of Health (DOH) and New Mexico communities." Citizens are bringing their concerns to state government officials who seem interested in considering the effects of certain activities on public health. Will this interest continue and grow in the future? And will decisions better reflect those community concerns? Only time will tell.

Community Partners
and Resources

Table of Contents

"When uranium mining and processing became big business during the Cold War, the federal government subsidized the industry. Most of the United States' uranium came out of Navajo ground. The Navajo people had a nominal say in the process at the time, but have endured all of the consequences since then. The land was torn open for our nuclear arsenal and the Navajo people are still dying from the cancers and illnesses that it caused.

I do not want a fourth generation of my people to suffer from the physical, psychological and cultural devastation caused by predatory energy practices. The lack of tribal consent contained in the Indian Energy title means that the federal government could override the Navajo law that prohibits uranium-mining activities on our land."
–Joe Shirley, Jr. President, Navajo Nation
"Senate Energy Bill Exploits Indian Resources"
Albuquerque Journal, July 18, 2003

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