1998 CPEO Brownfields List Archive

From: Lenny Siegel <lsiegel@igc.apc.org>
Date: Wed, 08 Apr 1998 13:18:01 -0700 (PDT)
Reply: cpeo-brownfields


The importance of a smooth, reliable process for constructive public
involvement can only increase as various Brownfields initiatives
accelerate activity at state-led sites.

In general, the current process has three shortcomings:

1. In many communities - particularly poor areas and communities of
color - the cleanup process, environmental technology, and government in
general are so overwhelming that people are hesitant to participate. It
may seem that residents don't care; in fact, they may simply believe
that no one will listen to them.

2. Usually public comment is sought late in the decision-making process.
Site neighbors have a difficult dilemma. Do they accede to plans that
have in essence already been developed or approved by regulators? Or do
they throw a "wrench in the works" at the last minute?

3. At some sites, particularly where officials consider at least some
community members to be "troublemakers," public meetings offer little
opportunity for genuine feedback.

Experience with federal facilities and a limited number of other sites
suggests that public participation can be significantly enhanced by a
three-part program of community advisory groups, community assistance
offices, and technical advisors. I believe that statutes and regulations
should entitle communities to this type of help, but that it should be
written flexibly enough so that the state does not impose a
one-size-fits-all model onto communities that do not need or want it.
It's important to understand that effective public participation
programs demand, even when subsidized, a great deal of volunteer time
and effort.

* Community Advisory Groups. The best known examples of this model are
Restoration Advisory Boards (RABs) at military bases. These boards
regularly bring together a broad spectrum of community representatives -
environmental activists, business community, academics and other experts
who live in the area, local government, etc. - to hear reports on
investigations and negotiations and to offer feedback, either as
individuals or as a group. Responsible parties and regulators are ex
officio members, and they are expected to provide information in forms
considered useful by the board.

These groups, as indicated by their middle name, are advisory. On the
one hand, they lack statutory authority, on the other, the community
members face no liability. In this role, there is no need to have
elections or formal appointment processes, but there is a need for
agencies to ensure that volunteer membership is broad-based and
balanced. In many cases, decision-makers will heed advisory group
advice. In all cases, they should answer to public recommendations. If
members of the group don't like the decisions, they may use the
information and credibility that they have gained through participation
to organize political pressure to reverse those decisions.

I believe the best way to adapt the RAB concept to (generally less
significant or complex) state-led sites is to encourage the formation of
neighborhood- or city-wide Community Advisory Groups, covering multiple
contamination. One of the reasons RABs are generally successful is that
they provide an opportunity for community members to learn as they go.
As the cleanup focus shifts from site to site within a large military
installation, the RAB shifts its attention as well. Rather than focus on
individual properties or responsible parties, Advisory Groups would
oversee the full range of site cleanup in their areas. If a single site
emerges as particularly controversial or complicated, the 
neighborhood/city Advisory Group could easily establish a subcommittee
for the life of that project.

Community advisory groups could also generate "community impact
statements," assessments of existing environmental conditions that
developers and others can use in devising proposals for that
neighborhood or community. The existing processes of environmental
review tend to seek public input late in the process, after project
proponents have invested substantial time and money. They invite
confrontation and often unnecessarily turn project development costs
into waste. A baseline community impact statement would give developers
guidelines, up front, about how to propose projects that better meet the
communities needs or expectations. 

The formation of a Community Advisory Group should be triggered by a
show of community interest, as evidenced by a petition - such as fifty
people from the area - or a request from a government agency.
Responsible parties could also request the formation of a board. The
Advisory Group proponents would define the geographic scope, but
regulators should be prepared to resolve disputes between conflicting
proposals. If public interest declines, the Group could meet less
frequently, go dormant, or disband.

In a small number of cases there may be a debate about what constitutes
the area to be covered by the Group. I think the rules should be
flexible. The key concept is simple: people who are affected by past,
current, or future environmental "releases" (including noise and traffic
as well as toxic substances) in an area - whether neighbors, absentee
property owners, downstreamers, or downwinders - should be asked to
participate. Furthermore, where natural resources are impacted,
stakeholder groups with an interest in those resources should also be

* Community Assistance Offices. To facilitate the formation of effective
Community Advisory Groups, state regulatory agencies should establish
statewide (or in large states, regional) Community Assistance Offices.
These offices would bear primary responsibility for notifying
communities of the option of creating a Group, and they would work with
regulatory agency public participation staff to ensure broad,
representative local participation. They would help find meeting places,
and they would provide support services - publicity, public address and
presentation equipment, facilitation if requested, recording, etc. The
Community Assistance Offices would work to ensure that members of the
community have access to the documents - state policy as well as site
specific - that they need. The Offices could also support other
information dissemination activities, such as a statewide site registry.

The Community Assistance Office could also help organize area-specific
or regional training Workshops, not only for members of the Advisory
Groups, but for members of state agencies and representatives of
responsible parties who must work with them.

Perhaps most important, the Community Assistance Office staff would help
Community Advisory Groups assess their requirements for independent
technical assistance. They would help write requests for bids or
proposals from consultants, and they would handle procurement on behalf
of the Groups.

* Technical Advisors. Experience shows that community advisory boards
work best when they have access to technical experts independent of both
the regulators and responsible parties, and conversely, that technical
assistance is most effective when attached to some type of advisory
group. Usually, the presence of independent technical experts improves
communications between the public and decision-makers at a site.

I propose that Community Advisory Groups, working with Community
Assistance Offices, have the option of "hiring" Technical Advisors. Like
consultants retained under U.S. EPA's Technical Assistance Grant
program, the Technical Advisor for each area would review documents,
highlight impending decisions, and help Advisory Group members develop
positions both on studies and proposed decisions and workplans. The
Technical Advisor, in consultation with the Group, could bring in
specialists to address issues beyond his/her area of expertise. The
Technical Advisory would not have the mission nor the resources to
duplicate the efforts of state technical experts.

In establishing such a program, states should develop contracting
procedures that A) allow the members of the Advisory Group to bring in
advisers that they trust; B) guarantee against waste, fraud, and abuse;
and C) don't divert the Group's volunteer resources to the
administration of technical assistance contracting.

I propose, therefore, that the actual contracting with Technical
Advisors be done by the Community Assistance Offices, based upon
criteria and recommendations from representatives of the Community
Advisory Groups. (The Defense Department TAPP [Technical Assistance for
Public Participation] program has one such model.) 

Actual contract amounts would be based upon a showing of need, as
evidenced by technical questions raised by the Advisory Group. Each
Advisory Group would apply for funds within a fixed statewide budget,
and funds available at a site would be linked to the anticipated
long-term site mitigation cost in an area.

It's essential that public participation not be seen just as a way for
the community to "beat up on" polluters. That sometimes happens, and
often it's justified. However, if done right - that is, if the community
is genuinely engaged early and continuously - public participation more
often than not brings better results for both the public and the
responsible parties. As such, it can help modify the traditional
adversarial relationship between regulators and responsible parties into
one of partnership. The benefits of full public participation, when done
properly, easily outweigh the costs.


Lenny Siegel
Director, Center for Public Environmental Oversight (AKA SFSU
c/o PSC, 222B View St., Mountain View, CA 94041
Voice: 650/961-8918 or 650/969-1545
Fax: 650/968-1126

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