Who isn't in shock over the tragedy unfolding in the Gulf Of Mexico? In a state of shock and dread, we’ve been following the frontline work of our Waterkeeper organizations in Alabama and Louisiana and viewing pictures and video by the Hurricane Creekkeeper John Wathen. New information about the dangers posed by plumes of oil in the Gulf of Mexico at great depths, known as the ‘third dimension’ of the ocean, will compound our understanding of this tragedy over the coming weeks.
While it is important to continue to focus our compassion and resources on the people and environment affected by this tragedy, there is also an urgent need to understand the process that makes catastrophic human-made disasters possible: risk-based decision-making instead of the globally-accepted precautionary principle. The precautionary principle requires that caution be taken when something could cause harm, even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established. In contrast, risk-based decision-making consists of applying a formula to determine what level of harm is acceptable. Importantly, the precautionary principle lays the burden of proof on the party advocating a project. Risk-based decision-making puts the burden on the public to prove harm or, even worse, doesn't let the public participate in the discussion around risk at all.
Louisiana knows all too well about the consequences of risk-based environmental policies. First, a series of engineering failures led to a navigational canal flooding New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Now another set of engineering failures is flooding the Gulf of Mexico with oil. The affected communities want to know why secondary pumps, shut-off valves, and emergency disaster plans were not required. What trade-offs were made by industry and government behind closed doors? Would things have been different if democratic public processes forced regulators to include community participation in the calculations of risk and consequences? Would the same gambles have been taken by independent regulators as opposed to stakeholders?
While Louisiana is the current poster child for flawed risk assessments, it is just the most visible victim. Industry and governments worldwide are continuously justifying and creating new threats from energy projects by permitting risky activities in sensitive ecosystems through risk-based decision-making. In Canada, risk-based decision-making started with the regulation of nuclear power in the 1970 and 80's. Public protections were eliminated or replaced despite efforts by groups and individuals like Energy Probe, the City of Toronto, David Suzuki, Rosalie Bertell, and Ursula Franklin, who challenged the elimination of nuclear liability and public review processes that controlled risk taking.
Since that time, the slippery slope of risk-based modeling has spread to other areas of environmental approvals. In the last decade, governments have used risk-based models to justify regulatory reductions. Regulators no longer have the resources to understand and oversee engineering projects or to assess the alternatives or potential risks. Instead, resources are focused on facilitating approvals. With more and more pressure, and less and less understanding, safeguards are falling away. The provincial and federal shifts in policy, from independent scientists and public interest advocates to self regulation and risk-based assessments, is now affecting almost every important environmental decision. This is especially dangerous when we consider the potential impacts of mega-projects like dams, nuclear power plants, and deep ocean drilling.
The people of New Orleans must be wondering what their city would look like if precaution had overruled risk assessment in decision-maker’s minds. Would we still have floods, oily beaches, and a degraded Gulf of Mexico? With our hearts still reaching out to our friends in Louisiana and Alabama, we have the chance to turn these questions on our own environmental decision-makers before the next risk-based disaster hits our shores.
This week on Living at the Barricades:
Living at the Barricades is on hiatus for the summer. This week's audio is a Swim Drink Fish Music exclusive from Gord Downie and the Sadies: a haunting cover of Randy Newman's Louisiana, 1927.
Listen to the song
Listen to Louisiana, 1927 by Gord Downie and the Sadies.
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