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Reports > Lessons Learned Table of Contents > Executive Summary
> Acknowledgements
> Introduction > Methods > Case Studies > Deloro, Ontario > Giant Mine, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories > Lessons Learned from Community Involvement at U.S. Contaminated Sites

3.0 CASE STUDIES

3.5 Lessons Learned from Community Involvement at U.S. Contaminated Sites


In the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA or the Agency) has had more than a decade of experience with community involvement in contaminated site remediation.

In 1980, the federal government began its Superfund program, which was designed to enable clean-up of inactive hazardous waste sites and protect public health and the environment from releases of hazardous substances.38 It was not until1986, however, that EPA began to focus on community involvement in Superfund clean-up efforts.

The 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act required EPA to develop community involvement provisions to ensure that the public be informed of the proposed actions at a Superfund site, as well as to encourage public participation in the Superfund process. In response, EPA created a Superfund Community Involvement program, which provides the public with information about site conditions and clean-up activities, and

most importantly, it promotes participation in the environmental cleanup decisions directly affecting community health and livelihood.39

In the past decade, EPA has learned many lessons with respect to improving community involvement at some of the most highly contaminated sites in the country.40 They have developed tool kits and guidance documents, as well as numerous case studies related to public or community involvement.41

There is also a growing body of scholarly research in the U.S. on public participation in decision-making. In particular, a recent study examining public participation in contaminated communities illuminates many of the complex issues that must be grappled with when communities and governments confront the task of remediating contaminated sites.42 The following discussion draws on some of the key lessons learned from EPA’s experiences, and on literature on public participation in decision-making in the United States.

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3.4.1 BENEFITS OF COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT

Research in the U.S. has shown that public participation can provide the essential community-based knowledge, information, and insight that may be lacking in expert-driven processes. It can also enhance the efficiency of administrative decision-making; contribute to conflict resolution; create support for and acceptability of agency actions; facilitate implementation of decisions; and generally, lead to more rational and legitimate decisions about risk.43

The U.S.-based National Research Council and the Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management have suggested that public participation will lead to “better” decisions.44

This suggestion was substantiated by interviews with EPA staff involved in clean-up efforts at Superfund sites.45 The following are a sample of EPA staff comments:

The community task force made a significant contribution to the clean-up effort. 46

Significant community involvement in the risk assessment led to a better product and increased public confidence in the project. 47

Getting the public more involved is the right thing to do and will usually lead to better decisions. 48

If you sincerely seek information or support from a community you will almost always get something worthwhile. 49

In several cases, “better decisions” decreased the costs associated with the clean-up projects.

At the East Fork Poplar Creek Superfund Site, citizens argued that the level of risk reduction called for in the regulators’ proposed clean-up plan did not justify the $168 million price tag. The community opted for a remediation strategy that reduced the clean-up costs to $8 million. The government’s remediation program manager said that even without such substantial dollar savings, the $250,000 that they spent on community involvement work would have been worthwhile in terms of citizen goodwill and satisfaction with the outcome. 50

Similarly, a multi-stakeholder “Coordinating Council” at the Pine Street Barge Canal Superfund Site provided a mechanism for active community involvement in decision-making. The work of the Council led to development and acceptance of a far less costly and less intrusive remediation alternative that won support from all stakeholder groups in the community. 51

Lesson: Community involvement improves the quality of remediation decisions, and may reduce the clean-up costs.

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3.4.2 BARRIERS TO COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT

EPA has discussed a number of barriers that may affect public participation in a multi-stakeholder process. 52 Barriers may include:

1. Political reasons: e.g., due to an existing power structure or community dynamic, citizens believe they will be unable to significantly influence issues.
2. Economic circumstances: e.g., citizens cannot afford the time or do not have the resources to participate substantively in the process.
3. Historical reasons: e.g., past inaction or inadequate attention to the issue has led to a “too little, too late” attitude.
4. Social background: e.g., citizens have not been exposed to these types of community interactions or processes before (feel intimidated).
5. Cultural reasons: e.g., “the problem was a result of god’s will.”
6. Problems related to information: e.g., they receive inadequate information and/or explanations of background and technical material, inadequate minutes from meetings, overwhelming amounts of reading (feel intimidated).
7. Conflict-related issues: e.g., there is either a lack of or too much controversy surrounding an issue (“it’s not worth my time,” or “I don’t like conflict”).

Lack of community trust is often cited by EPA and others as a major barrier to participation. For example:

A century of dumping of industrial wastes in Chattanooga Creek created one of the most polluted creeks in United States. For years, residents had complained about the contamination of the creek, along with odors, fumes, and air pollution associated with the local industrial facilities. In 1980, the Tennessee Valley Authority identified 53 toxic substances in the creek, with some above EPA guideline levels. Despite clear evidence of serious environmental contamination, state and local agencies were slow to respond. Residents interpreted this inaction as an absence of agency concern for the public welfare. This history made it difficult for community residents to trust and respect government agencies. 53

Lesson: There are numerous barriers to public participation.

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3.4.3 OVERCOMING BARRIERS TO COMMUNITY           INVOLVEMENT

3.4.3.1 Build Trust

EPA has recognized that even though the process of building trust can be time-consuming and daunting, trust is integral to effective community involvement. 54

One successful EPA trust-building effort occurred at the Leadville Superfund Site:55

In 1983, EPA began planning a Superfund clean-up of the California Gulch mining site in Leadville, Colorado. The Agency’s efforts were met with years of community resistance. In 1995, the Colorado legislative representative from the community was suggesting that EPA staff be “hanged at the city limits.” Today, however, EPA is working in partnership with local leaders to complete a clean-up at the site.

A number of EPA initiatives in Leadville eventually led to the understanding and trust needed to move forward on the site clean-up. The situation started to improve after EPA hired a Community Involvement Coordinator (CIC). The following is a summary of the lessons on trust-building learned by the CIC:

  • You can’t be an occasional visitor – you must be in the community on a regular basis, listening and responding in a neighbourly way, and take the time to build relationships.
  • You increase your chances of success if you pay close attention to what the community is worried about and what they perceive to be the primary threats. Deal with these issues along with the problems that are on your agenda (e.g., while EPA’s priority was reducing the possibility of child ingestion of lead, the EPA team began to focus more attention on improving stream quality and fishing/recreational opportunities; and EPA showed respect for Leadville’s mining heritage by working with the town to develop an historic preservation plan that would help guide clean-up decisions.)
  • It’s important to avoid the temptation to lecture the community, and to not have the attitude that you are there to save it.
  • It was useful to supplement public meetings by sitting down with residents in their homes and talking with (not to) them, and meeting with county officials to listen to their concerns and to exchange ideas.

3.4.3.2 Focus on Communication With and Outreach to the Community

In the past, government agencies have often targeted their communication efforts at one group, whom they thought represented the community. This has led to frustration on the part of the larger community. The following example demonstrates this problem:

In 1992, the us Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) entered the community of Chatanooga to conduct a health study related to the Chatanooga Creek Superfund site. ATSDR implemented some public outreach, communication, and education efforts in the community of Chattanooga. But its primary focus of communication was with a local university environmental group called Stop Toxic Pollution (STOP). STOP members interacted with the agency and also organized a community-wide meeting at which ATSDR distributed fact sheets. STOP members, however, were considered to be “outsiders” in the community, due to the fact that most were university students who were not from Chattanooga. Given the group’s perceived “outsider” status, ASTDR’s reliance on STOP as a focus for and convener of agency outreach activities was problematic, as it angered community residents who did not identify with that group. For a time, this frustration on the part of the larger community impeded ATSDR efforts to communicate with the affected community.56

The EPA has found that it is often the groups most likely to be affected by a decision who will be the most difficult to reach.57 At the Waste Inc. Superfund site, the Agency employed special efforts to overcome this barrier:

At the Waste Inc. Superfund Site in Indiana, EPA encountered high levels of distrust from the community because the Agency had begun work without giving the community an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. In an attempt to break through the community mistrust, EPA formed a partnership with a local organization called the Minority Health Coalition (MHC). Rhonda Lee from the MHC began to work as a community leader, assisting EPA by identifying interested residents and other key stakeholders, and communicating with the community (particularly hard-to-reach citizens). Lee drew on her experiences of working with the community to help EPA better understand the community’s needs and ways to communicate effectively with the community. Through this approach, EPA increased its efforts to involve community in decisions at all levels. 58

Lesson: Extra efforts may be necessary to ensure that the message is heard by all community members.

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U.S. government agencies have used a variety of communication tools and strategies to reach community members who have different levels of interest, concern, and technical expertise:

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE’s) outreach efforts with respect to the Rocky Flats contaminated site is a good example of how an outreach program catered to the preferences and abilities of the community. For the general public, the CDPHE communicated information via a quarterly newsletter, periodic fact sheets, and special reports, as well as face-to-face at quarterly public meetings. It also designed a variety of activities to address the different levels of interest, concern, education, and scientific/technical knowledge in the community. For example, for citizens most comfortable with written information the agency developed ten technical topic papers to answer frequently asked questions and to explain complex scientific and technical issues in a simple, clear, and concise way. For citizens who wanted a more active role and/or who had particular interest in the public exposure studies, the agency worked with HAP to establish a Citizens’ Environmental Sampling Committee. 59

The Pine Street Barge Canal Coordinating Council had an extensive outreach program related to its community participation process: 60

1. All meetings were open to the public and citizens were encouraged to express their views.
2. All upcoming meetings were announced in the local newspaper.
3. Council’s deliberations were widely reported in the Burlington Free Press, and many meetings were broadcast on the local cable system’s public access channel.
4. Council members reported on a regular basis to their “wedge” or constituency by disseminating information from the Council at meetings of other community groups. They also gathered input from these groups as feedback for the Council.
5. A Council newsletter was published on a periodic basis.
6. Whenever a specific benchmark or important decision was reached (e.g., decision to conduct additional studies, or when a report was released) the Council made a special effort to get the word out to the public-at-large through local media.

Some additional suggestions and examples of useful communication tools and strategies that have come out our U.S.-based research include:

  • It is especially critical to convey information related to community health in a timely manner.

    For example, at the Montrose-Del Amo waste site, EPA’s biggest challenge was to address community fears about possible adverse human health effects from years of DDT and rubber production. When EPA discovered bowling-ball-sized chunks of DDT-contaminated fill in two residential yards, they instituted what was in their view a time-critical removal action. But they did not simultaneously develop an adequate risk communication message. This fueled existing community fears, suggesting to the community that it was at a high risk of exposure. The community experienced further frustration because often there was no quick information available; information was only provided after the community asked the right questions; or information was too technical or inconsistent (e.g., data was sometimes provided in parts per million, while at other times it was in parts per billion). For already fearful residents, confusing or inconsistent information easily sparked mistrust. Due to the prior history of problems with other regulators, the residents often interpreted miscommunications by the EPA as deliberate attempts to withhold information or mislead the community. 61

  • Outreach mechanisms must find a way to go to the community, rather than expect the community to come to them, e.g., hold meetings or information sessions in conjunction with regularly scheduled community activities. 62
  • It may be useful to broadcast meetings on a local radio station or public TV station.

    For example, in the New Bedford Superfund community process, there was suspicion that the stakeholder group was simply a “mouthpiece” for the EPA and industry. Televised meetings prevented perceptions of back-room bargaining. While this was useful for increasing the credibility of the process, the televised sessions were not the right mechanism for communicating information back to the public. The televised meetings were too lengthy for most people to follow.

  • Web sites, although a useful tool, are not perfect (not everyone has access to the Internet; web sites do not always operate correctly; they do not allow for meaningful public input; and it can be time-consuming to download material from them). 64
Lesson: Information should be communicated in a timely way, and in manners that are accessible and understandable to the entire community


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There are a variety of mechanisms and methods to provide information to community members. Some of the methods focus solely on the one-way provision of information from the government to the community, or, in the case of community surveys and interviews, the conveyance of information from community to government.

Public meetings are often perceived as venues for agencies to “present, explain and defend” decisions that they’ve already made, rather than as opportunities to enter into meaningful dialogue and shared decision-making with the community. 65

In all of the U.S. case studies reviewed for this report, there was a mechanism put into place to foster two-way communication, i.e., provide the public with a chance to ask questions, raise concerns, express opinions, and interact with other community members and government. And as will be described later, an iterative process, where EPA provides responses to community input, is important to ensure agency accountability to the process.

Lesson: In addition to communicating messages to the public, meaningful community involvement requires a mechanism that enables two-way dialogue.

3.4.3.3 Allow for Independent Verification of Data

Community members may not have a great deal of confidence in the analysis of scientific data that are presented to them. People living near contaminated sites may be hesitant to trust the work of a government that failed to prevent (and, indeed, was sometime responsible for creating) environmental contamination.66 The public may also be distrustful of scientific and technical experts from a variety of public and private institutions who have been slow to acknowledge hazards and quick to minimize risk — often preferring to wait for more scientific evidence before taking action deemed to protect the public interest.67

The lack of confidence in data may be well founded. The us National Research Council has acknowledged that science is not value-neutral or objective, especially in terms of how it makes assumptions, frames problems, or, at times, reports findings.68 Others have reported on how science and technical expertise can be politicized, and how the interpretation of scientific data cannot be isolated from the personal, social, and political context of the individual providing the interpretation.69

The task of increasing public confidence in scientific data may require that research be conducted or verified by an independent source. This proposition has been substantiated by EPA’s research. In an EPA review of eight agency regulatory negotiations, the Agency found that 80% of the controversial issues were successfully negotiated or resolved through the presentation of objective data and/or analysis. In many cases, credibility of the “objective data” meant that the data were produced or confirmed by a source other than EPA.70

Lesson: Credibility of scientific information may require that it be independently collected or verified.

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3.4.3.4 Create Funding and Initiatives for Community on Capacity Building

The data associated with mine-site remediation are often highly technical, and there can be overwhelming amounts of data produced. EPA acknowledges that without outside expertise, groups with non-technical backgrounds can be significantly disadvantaged in their ability to participate effectively in decision-making. 71

One tool that EPA developed to enable Superfund communities to have the capacity to understand and use technical data to better make decisions comes in the form of Technical Assistance Grants (TAGs).72 These grants are made available to community groups to hire experts to review technical issues associated with contaminated sites. Not only has this effort proven to be a considerable success in making it easier for community groups to interpret data and understand technical issues, it has also improved dialogue with EPA, enabled the community members to educate other nearby residents about the issues, and has established credibility of the groups involved. 73

The Pine Street Barge Canal Superfund site was a technically complex site, and public opposition to EPA’s first proposed remedy was mainly due to technical issues related to gaps in data collection at the site. Consequently, understanding complex data and technical issues was critical for meaningful community involvement. Community representatives said they had all the technical assistance they needed because the group received a TAG from EPA that allowed them to hire their own technical advisor to analyse the site data. One of the community members interviewed said the TAG was critical because it enabled the community to be an equal player in deliberations on technical issues.

At the Summitville Mine Superfund site in Colorado, the community’s technical advisor (hired through a TAG grant) submitted comments to the EPA that resulted in changes to the site reclamation plan. 75

Lesson: Technical assistance for community members levels the playing field and enables the community to participate more fully in decision-making. It may also lead to improvements in remediation plans.

Involving community members in actual technical work can both empower and provide community members with a more complete understanding of the complexities of the scientific issues involved in clean-up and related issues. They are then able to convey this information to the broader community.

At the Rocky Flats Superfund site in Colorado, a Citizens' Environmental Sampling Committee (CESC) was created out of a recognition of the inadequacies of the existing soil sampling records and the lack of public trust in the work conducted by governmental agencies and their contractors. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) worked with the state-initiated Health Advisory Panel (HAP) to establish the citizen-based committee to conduct a soil sampling study. Concerned citizens and community organizations were invited to select sampling sites, a sampling methodology, and the analytical laboratory. CESC members were also asked to analyze the data and write a report of the results. CDPHE arranged for Colorado State University to present soil sampling demonstrations so participants could learn sampling techniques. The agency also arranged a tour of a radiological sciences laboratory at the University so members could see how soil samples are analyzed. Committee members had full decision-making authority. They selected topics and experts for educational presentations and selected the sites for sampling. It was an innovative and empowering approach to both public participation and capacity building.

By involving members of the community in the actual work of a risk assessment at the Palmerton Zinc Superfund site, EPA not only gained helpful information (e.g., public input resulted in some valuable corrections to data in the draft risk assessment report), but also established a high level of public confidence.

Lesson: Including community members in the hands-on investigations and remediation work increases community capacity and trust in a process.

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3.4.4 FORMAL COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT          PROCESSES

3.4.4.1 Nature of Involvement

EPA suggests that initial discussions should be held with a community to clarify the type of process to be used, what the goals will be, and what the process can and cannot accomplish.76 This is necessary to reveal differences in expectations. Failure to do so may result in a serious erosion of public trust in a government department or a particular process.

In Rocky Flats, CO, the Future Site use Working Group (FSUWG) was established to create a mechanism to enable different parts of the community to work together to study options available for future site use and to make informed recommendations to the Department of Energy (DOE) and other agencies on this issue. FSUWG was charged with identifying opportunities and constraints for the future use of the site. Many participants interpreted this as meaning the group’s recommendations would actually influence final decisions made by government officials.

The agencies, on the other hand, believed that the purpose of community involvement activities was to enable them to hear and consider community views, but that the ultimate decision was their responsibility.

When DOE made no formal response to the group's recommendations, members perceived it as a lack of respect for the group's efforts and an indication that the agency was not trustworthy. When DOE later circulated documents that were seen as having significant divergence from the group's recommendation, there was considerable anger and public outrage. It was seen as a violation of public trust. 77

Lesson: The community should be made aware of the purpose of the participation process – before they enter the process.


On the issue of multi-jurisdictional overlap at contaminated sites in the United States, Ashford and Kerr (1999) found that the complex pattern of multi-agency involvement is both a source of confusion for the community, as well as an opportunity for interagency coordination, cooperation and synergy. 78

The following examples of interagency cooperation illustrate some successful interagency efforts:

In Saltville, Virginia, representatives from two federal agencies (EPA and ATSDR), and the state environmental agency created a joint decision-making process for the clean-up of contaminated sites in the town, and coordinated their communications and citizen participation efforts (e.g., public meetings). The Team met monthly, and made all decisions by consensus. The Team also had decision-making authority, and their decisions were not second-guessed or reversed by their agencies. This helped enhance accountability and credibility with the local community. 79

In Bartlesville, three federal and two state agencies created a Task Force to coordinate activities with respect to community health issues related to zinc smelting operations. By working together, agencies were able to accomplish some tasks more efficiently, e.g., ATSDR funded the state to the blood lead studies, eliminating the necessity of having to go through its own peer review process before results could be released. 80

Lesson: Multi-jurisdictional overlap can create confusion in the community. It may also provide an opportunity for interagency coordination, cooperation and synergy.


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3.4.4.2 MEMBERSHIP

A study conducted by EPA entitled Stakeholder Involvement and Public Participation concluded that the greater the diversity of perspectives included, the more likely the process and resulting products will be perceived as credible by the community. 81

Other research suggests that even in cases where the processes appear to have good community representation, it is important to consider whether the participants adequately represent the views and values of the larger, unorganized, inactive, and non-participating public.82

For example, at the Sandia Laboratory Site in Albuquerque, a Steering Committee of local residents was responsible for publicizing openings on the Community Advisory Board (CAB), and creating a list of potential members from the respondents. The Steering Committee sought to recommend delegates who represented a broad political and demographic spectrum. The CAB members were appointed by the Department of Energy (DOE).

Although appointed to represent the community, many members of the CAB did not feel comfortable with this role. They said they could not speak for the community, even though the agency and facility assumed they did. In the words of one member, “DOE would say, ‘we need the public to tell about these things and you, the board, represent the public.’ But we don't represent the public because we were appointed by DOE.” Another member noted that, “They [Sandia Lab] go around and say the CAB endorsed it and therefore the community supports it. This is not necessarily true.” 83

Lesson: Membership should include broad representation that reflects the diversity of viewpoints in the community.

Increasingly, public participation is being distinguished from stakeholder involvement.84 A major difference between the two types of involvement is that public participation generally does not differentiate between different members of the public. Stakeholder involvement processes, on the other hand, tend to be more targeted in their membership,85 with the resultant criticism that stakeholder processes can sometimes eliminate the “fringe elements” or dilute the influence of the most severely impacted members of the community, who are often the least powerful as well. 86

The Lead Steering Committee demonstrates how a targeted or pre-selected involvement process served to reproduce inequalities in a community. 87

This case involves heavy metal contamination of the West Side of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a community with a large proportion of low-income and minority (African-American) residents. The West Side had long endured a disproportionate burden of environmental hazards within the larger community of Bartlesville, and they wielded little political power within the large Bartlesville community. The state environmental agency established the Lead Steering Committee as a mechanism for two-way communication between the involved public agencies and the public. Members were appointed by the state agency, after trying to identify the “major players” in the community at a public meeting. The primary purpose of the committee was to get information out to the community, and as a result, members of the local media were appointed. Some members of the affected West Side community felt under-represented on the committee. Some committee members from the West Side reported a continued sense of a power imbalance, noting their views were not respected or taken as seriously as those of other members.

Lesson: Community members easily recognize and may be critical of public participation mechanisms that leave out or mute the voices of community members.

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3.4.4.3 When to Engage the Community

The Li Tungsten Superfund process is an excellent example of how early and meaningful public involvement can lead to a better clean-up. The Li Tungsten site was selected by EPA to test the effectiveness of early community involvement in the Superfund clean-up process. 88

The Li Tungsten Community Task Force, which included residents, business interests, local environmental organizations, potentially responsible parties, and local and state governments, was organized prior to the initiation of the remedial investigation. The Task Force provided assistance and input to EPA on the best approach for dealing with soils, sediments and groundwater contaminated by 40 years of tungsten-products manufacturing. The main lessons learned by the EPA from this test case were that:

  • Formation of the Task Force at the outset allowed the membership to see the Superfund process from beginning to end, which greatly reduced the misunderstanding that leads to distrust and lack of community cooperation.
  • The Task Force made a significant contribution to the clean-up effort through early scoping of issues and dissemination of information to the community. Also, the Task Force involvement improved the quality of the Remedial Investigation report and substantially influenced EPA’s feasibility study deliberations.
  • The public has useful knowledge. The risk assessment was improved because of the Task Force’s input on how the property had been used and the anticipated future land uses.

    The literature supports the premise that public involvement should begin early in the decision-making process, as problems are being defined and formulated. This can help to take citizens out of a reactive position; offer them meaningful engagement in discussions of options, tradeoffs, and consequences; and, as seen from the following example, build trust between the participants.

    The Albuquerque Environmental Justice and Superfund Summit is an example of community involvement at the planning stages of a process. The summit is considered to be a groundbreaking effort at building partnerships and creating dialogue among a broad range of interests.

    The purpose of the summit was to develop solutions to the contamination issues faced by Albuquerque’s San Jose neighbourhood. The summit was planned, designed, sponsored, and implemented through a collaborative process that included community organizations, government, and industry. Each group had reasons to participate and collaborate.

    Involving such a large number of disparate groups in a single planning process was difficult and time-consuming, but those involved were committed to shared decision-making and community-building, even if it occurred at the expense of efficiency. The open, collaborative nature of the Summit’s planning process has led to a spirit of mutual respect, a commitment to continue to improve communication among often contentious groups, a recognition of the value and validity of the different forms of knowledge, and enhanced trust between and among the different community groups and government agencies. 90

The literature also suggests that public participation activities should not be initiated if decisions have already been made and there is no possibility that the public can influence them. 91 If the public is involved only after decisions have been made, it is highly likely that they will believe the process lacks credibility.

At the Pine Street Barge Canal Superfund Site, EPA released a $50 million cleanup plan that had not been the result of community input. There was general agreement that the presentation of this plan left the Agency’s credibility with the community in tatters. Eventually, community acceptance of a remedy was gained, but this occurred only after they were able to become actively involved in decision-making through a Coordinating Council. 92

Lesson: Community involvement should occur early in the process, and definitely before decisions are made.


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3.4.4.4 Factors Affecting the Success of Community Involvement            Processes

Agency accountability to a public participation process is essential. The credibility of the process may be undermined if agencies do not respond (or fail to respond in a timely manner) to the public’s input, suggestions or recommendations. This was seen in the Rocky Flats FSUWG example, above. When the DOE failed to formally respond to FSUWG’s recommendations, members perceived DOE as being untrustworthy, and lacking respect for the group’s efforts. 93

In their Stakeholder Involvement and Public Participation report, EPA lists a number of lessons learned with respect to Agency accountability: 94

1. When public input and concerns are voiced, the Agency needs to be able to clearly explain how that advice will be used.
2. If the Agency makes a decision that is at odds with community input, it should explain to the community why the decision was made.
3. The Agency should expect that community members will strongly desire to re-state and argue their position. Thus, EPA needs to have a clear, flexible process that allows room to further debate the Agency’s decision.
4. EPA should be open to the possibility that the decision may require changes before being considered final.
5. These efforts will send a signal to the community that the public’s input truly is valued. Without such measures, the credibility of the public participation effort may be lost.

There may be a need to provide training to regulators who are involved in stakeholder and public participation processes. It was recognized by EPA that Agency staff would greatly benefit from training in both the value and use of these activities, and also in how to conduct themselves in the processes.

It may be important for governmental officials who are in the position to make or influence decisions to attend and participate in community involvement activities and events. Community members in some of the case studies questioned an agency’s interest and commitment to the public participation process and to shared decision-making when only low-ranking personnel participated in a process or attended meetings.

Lesson: Governmental agencies’ accountability to and support for a process are essential.


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Consistency in membership is often cited as extremely important in achieving timely progress toward goals. For example, members of the Pine Street Barge Canal Coordinating Council have acknowledged that low turnover in membership helped to foster the trusting relationships necessary to reach a consensus agreement. 96

Consistency, however, may be difficult to achieve in some community processes. Both community members and government employees can suffer from “burn-out,” which can be induced by the large time commitment that so many formal processes require. It may also be brought on by an inability to deal with conflicts that arise.

In EPA’s Montrose-Del Case Study, there was high government turnover because of the stress and challenge of addressing the social issues that went hand-in-hand with the contamination. 97

At the Montrose-Del Amo Waste site, a citizen’s group requested an extensive permanent relocation of residents after bowling-ball-sized chunks of DDT-contaminated fill were found in two residents’ yards. EPA management believed that relocation was unnecessary. The on-site EPA team, which wanted to be responsive to the community and build credibility, found themselves in a very difficult situation. Eventually an agreement was reached to temporarily relocate 30 families during the cleanup excavation work. When the excavation was completed, it was difficult for the on-site EPA team to get the residents to move back. EPA team members were often overwhelmed by these and other social issues. Out of all of the government departments involved in the project, they were the only ones with any community involvement training, and as a result, they bore the brunt of citizen interaction. The incidence of EPA staff burn-out and subsequent team turnover was high, which frustrated the community, who felt they were continually having to get new staff up to speed.

In addition to affecting the success of a process, a high turnover rate of governmental staff participating in community involvement processes may contribute to a perception that the agency is inconsistent and incompetent. Both high staff turnover and conflicting information from different staff members caused many citizens in St. Louis to lose confidence in the Department of Energy. In the words of one community member: "It seems like DOE is very confused...and it seems like you are always dealing with new people." 98

Lesson: High rates of participant turnover can lead to frustration, and decrease the credibility of the process.

EPA case studies also indicate that openness and transparency can significantly influence public trust and willingness to participate in the process. The following example shows how an open risk assessment process increased the Agency’s credibility within the community, and also led to a better risk assessment process.

For close to 100 years, two zinc-smelting plants operated outside the town of Palmerton, Pennsylvania. Contamination from these operations included more than 30 million tons of smelter residues, and contaminated ground and surface waters. Some community members and potentially responsible parties questioned EPA’s assertions that contamination within the community was related to the zinc operations. They claimed, rather, that the contamination was attributable to lead paint, gasoline, cigarettes, etc. When EPA successfully “fingerprinted” the metals contamination, proving its industrial origins, the Agency had a clear opportunity to move forward with their cleanup efforts. Instead they decided to involve the stakeholders in a risk assessment exercise. This exercise was conducted in an extremely open and transparent manner. Regular meetings were held in the community and EPA offices, and minutes of these meetings were published in a newsletter. And data, methodology, issues and concerns were freely shared and discussed. The exchange of technical data was so complete that both EPA and the community had sufficient information to do their own risk assessments. EPA not only gained helpful information (e.g., the community’s assessment resulted in some valuable corrections to data in the draft risk assessment report), but also established a high level of public confidence. No one complained about the process or felt blind-sided by results. Although not everyone was pleased with the conclusions of the risk assessment, no one felt left out of the process. 99

Even if meetings are open to the public, they can be run is ways that severely limit the ability for certain viewpoints to be heard. For example, if time is not specifically allocated for public comment, tight control of public meetings can exclude public participation. This can anger community members who view the meetings both as information sessions, and as venues for intra-community communication. In the words of one St. Louis resident:

By the time your opportunity to talk comes around, your energy is dissipated...the bulk of the people leave before the public gets to talk. So by the time you get to the part where you could learn from your neighbors, people aren't there. 100

Lesson: Openness and transparency can lead to a better process.

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There are different approaches to coming to group decisions. Some of the case studies provide examples of consensus-based
decision-making, while others have employed a voting structure.

Neither of these is a clearly preferred option, as there are pros and cons associated with both approaches. The main lesson coming out of the review of these mechanisms is that no matter which approach is taken, it must be viewed by the participants as being fair.

Reaching consensus is time-consuming and may be frustrating, but it may lead to group cohesiveness, 101and to decisions that are more acceptable to the broader community.

While most EPA Community Advisory Groups do not operate by consensus, members of the Pine Street Barge Canal Coordinating Council adopted a consensus-based decision-making process. All participants in evaluation interviews agreed that although the consensus process was costly and time- and resource-intensive, and frustrating for participants, the benefits to the community outweighed these additional costs. The community was empowered by becoming a partner in decision-making at the site, and the community agreed on a remedy acceptable to all parties. And all stakeholders agreed that it probably was the only way the group could have reached an agreement acceptable to all parties involved. 102

Several factors specific to the Pine Street Barge Canal site may have made consensus-based decision-making the appropriate choice.

  • The community included an unusual coalition of community groups, environmental groups and potentially responsible parties.
  • All segments of the community were united in opposition to EPA’s first clean-up plan.
  • All of the Council members were fully committed to the same goal, i.e., reaching a mutually acceptable agreement and remedy.
  • There was virtually no turnover in Council membership over the five-year process, which provided the opportunity for members to build trusting relationships that enabled them to reach agreement.
  • The EPA was flexible and diligent in its efforts to make the consensus process work. Council members praised EPA staff for their ability to do this work in the context of a regulatory role that was not necessarily conducive to consensus-based decision-making.

A voting structure has the potential to move the process along in a more efficient manner. There is the concern, however, that an imbalance of power in the membership may not provide adequate representation of the interests of the affected community.

Our review has revealed a couple of useful examples of how groups have attempted to address this power imbalance:

The Bartlesville Coalition of three community groups – each with different agendas – came together to apply collectively for an EPA Technical Assistance Grant. The three groups selected their own representatives for membership on the Coalition. Two of the groups represented the affected West Side community, while one of the groups represented business interests of the wider community. To better reflect the interests of the affected community, the two West Side group were given two votes to the business-group’s one. 103

Rocky Flats Local Impacts Initiative (RFLII) is a broad-based group with representatives from cities, counties, interest groups, the Chamber of Commerce, Rocky Flats employees, the Steelworkers union, affected landowners, the Department of Energy, and the Rocky Flats plant contractor. Neither the DOE nor the plant contractor has voting rights. And as a means of providing a voice for constituents not aligned with the above organizations, three “at large” positions were created, each having full voting rights.104

Lesson: Efforts must be made to ensure that processes are conducted in a fair and equitable manner.

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Effective facilitation can be critical to working through the conflicts that arise in multi-stakeholder or community involvement processes. 105

In the Pine Street Barge Canal case study, “Neutral, third-party facilitation was essential to guide deliberations of the community advisory group at this contentious site, where multiple segments of the community and of the regulatory community were present at the table.” 106
The lessons on facilitation conveyed by this case study were that:

  • Carefully consider whether you need someone to fulfil the role of mediator or facilitator, and choose a candidate with that specific skill. Be clear about which role you expect that individual to play.
  • A skilled facilitator will prepare agendas, keep meetings on agenda and discussions on track, record important points and decisions for participants, help the group resolve conflicts that arise and come to closure on important issues and milestones during the process of reaching its goals.
  • One size does not fit all. If possible, allow the community to interview more than one candidate so they can choose someone with whom they are comfortable.

EPA also stresses that early facilitation is important, especially if the process includes a number of participants representing a variety of different viewpoints or interests. If facilitators are brought in only after troubles are apparent, “it may not erase troubling developments that have already emerged.” 107

Lesson: Conflict resolution mechanisms and quality facilitation is extremely important to ensure that conflicts do not seriously hamper the process.
 
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Last updated: 2003-09-26

© National Orphaned/Abandoned Mines Initiative (NOAMI) 2004