By Peter Montague of Rachel’s Democracy & Health News
Lyndhurst is only the second municipality in the U.S. to adopt the precautionary principle as an overarching guide to municipal policy, and the first on the East Coast to do so. The City and County of San Francisco (Calif.) adopted the precautionary principle in June, 2002.
Ordinance #2674 was introduced Oct. 14, unanimously approved Oct. 21 after a "first reading" and finalized Nov. 11 by a unanimous vote of the township Commission. The official text of Ordinance 2674 is available here.
Lyndhurst is a municipality of 20,000 people in Bergen County, an old industrial town located in the Meadowlands of northern N.J.
Section 22-8.1 of Ordinance 2674 reads, "The following Precautionary Principle shall be established as the policy of the Township of Lyndhurst: '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.' (Wingspread Statement, 1998)" Section 22-8.2 of Ordinance 2674, says, in part,
"a. ...The Township of Lyndhurst will utilize the Precautionary Principle to develop laws for a healthier environment. By doing so, the Township will create and maintain a healthy, viable environment for current and future generations, and will become a model of sustainability. The Precautionary Principle is intended as a tool and
philosophy to promote environmentally healthy alternatives while removing the negative and often unintended consequences of new
"b. ...The Township of Lyndhurst will strive to make decisions based on the least environmentally harmful alternatives in order to provide every resident with an equal right to a healthy and safe environment. This requires that our air, water, soil, and food be of a sufficiently high standard that we can live healthy lives. The precautionary approach to decision-making will help Lyndhurst move beyond fixing environmental ills to preventing the ills before they can do harm."
The local newspaper, The Leader, ran a story October 23 quoting Lyndhurst Mayor Richard J. DiLascio explaining how precaution could serve Lyndhurst:
"In an interview after the ordinance was introduced Oct. 14, DiLascio expressed frustration that the cost of environmental monitoring tests near Bedroc [a demolition firm that emits dust into the air adjacent to a public recreational complex] would have to be borne by the township. Lyndhurst opted not to perform them.
"Instead, DiLascio said the contractor should have to prove that its actions are not unhealthy.
"'If you're going to do something that has a potential hazard, you are going to have to show that it's not going to be detrimental to the environment, the municipality or any other waterway,' DiLascio said."
Bedroc Contracting is a demolition company operating immediately adjacent to public ball fields where kids play soccer. Bedroc operates heavy machinery, kicking up clouds of dust. In response to the Bedroc situation, and to a possible cancer cluster, the township's health officer, Joyce Jacobson, initiated the precautionary ordinance.
"We're almost positive [Bedrock's air emissions are] harmful," Jacobson told the Leader newspaper. "But the scientific proof isn't there.... We can't prove (it), because we can't do the testing that it's harmful, so we don't have scientific evidence. But, we all pretty much know or believe that it is."
Jacobson -- trained as a physician's assistant -- wrote the precaution ordinance in conjunction with Mayor DiLascio.
The new ordinance puts a premium on preventing harm, rather than managing harm. It shifts the burden of proof of safety from the health department onto a polluter like Bedroc, to show that its emissions are not harmful. When decisions are pending, it will also initiate a systematic search for the least-harmful way of achieving the municipality's goals.
Mayor DiLascio says he hopes other communities will follow Lyndhurst's example and adopt the precautionary principle.