Friday, June 26, 2009

Jobs, Pollution, and Health: The Vexing Challenges of Balancing Competing Interests

Many natural resources development firms now see the matter of "social license to operate" as one of the keys in whether a project is a success or not.

Put another way, even with all of the legal niceties in place (contracts, licenses to extract, etc.), will the community in which the project operates accept the project. Or will the community reject the project.

A story in today's New York Times ("In the Andes, a Toxic Site Also Provides a Livelihood") illustrates the complicated issues involved in addressing economic, environmental, and health issues. The story is about Doe Run Peru, which is owned by an American-based firm Renco.

Doe Run Peru, located in La Oroya, Peru, is a smelting operation that emits large amounts of lead. According to the story, "Ninety-seven percent of children under the age of 6 had lead levels that would be considered toxic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, according to a 2005 study by scientists from Saint Louis University." On the other hand, the plant employs several thousand workers.

Consequently, as the title to article suggests, the plant provides jobs while also creating pollution and health problems. The same activity is considered in the minds of some an economic benefit while others see it as a health disaster. In La Oroya, residents seem to be split into these two camps.

What to do.

Those who pretend to know the solution to these sorts of predicaments are not, insofar as I am concerned, being honest. There are too many ways to look at the same activity. But what everyone should be able to agree on is that the environmental and natural resources communities need to take a harder and more holistic look at these types of developments.

In that regard, the graduate program will offer a one-week three-credit "short course" from Aug. 10-14. The course, "Community Relations in Natural Resource Development Projects," will be taught by Luke Danielson, an internationally known and respected expert in the field of sustainable natural resources development. (I mentioned going to see Luke in a posting last week.)

Mr. Danielson is recognized as a world leader, and those of us in the graduate program are delighted that he will be sharing his insights and experience with us. This issue is one that cries out for more attention and thought.

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