|From:||Lenny Siegel <email@example.com>|
|Date:||Wed, 08 Apr 1998 13:18:01 -0700 (PDT)|
|Subject:||A CONSTRUCTIVE APPROACH|
A CONSTRUCTIVE APPROACH TO PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN THE OVERSIGHT ON ENVIRONMENTAL CLEANUP THIS IS ADAPTED FROM A MEMO I CIRCULATED TO STAKEHOLDERS IN DISCUSSIONS OVER POTENTIAL REVISIONS TO CALIFORNIA'S SITE MITIGATION LAW. 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 involved. * 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 CAREER/PRO) c/o PSC, 222B View St., Mountain View, CA 94041 Voice: 650/961-8918 or 650/969-1545 Fax: 650/968-1126 firstname.lastname@example.org
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