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#782 - Public Participation - Part 1, 07-Jan-2004

Published January 29, 2004

by Maria B. Pellerano*

Every environmental justice and toxics activist has experienced
something like this:

A member of your group finds a public notice in the local
paper, on page 11 in tiny print, announcing a meeting about a
recycling facility (or some similar proposal).

So you go to the meeting and learn that the Green Hero
Corporation is planning to "recycle" sewage sludge by bagging
it and selling it as fertilizer -- and they're planning to do
this in your neighborhood.

Your neighborhood already has its share of smelly projects and
diesel trucks, and now you are supposed to welcome this new

Of course, it's already a done deal. The zoning has been
changed, permits issued, financing arranged, and the city
council has voted yes. You ask, "Why wasn't the community
informed?" and some slick guy in a three piece suit and a bad
tie says, "Well your city council knew and we are informing you
tonight. Besides, this proposal will bring jobs to your
neighborhood and it will meet all state and federal laws so I
don't see the problem." Then he gets in his helicopter and
flies back home to his nice clean neighborhood never to be seen

In too many communities, this scenario accurately reflects what
"community participation" means these days: informing the
community after all the permits have been given, just as the
operation is about to begin.

But true "community participation" does not have to be like
this. First let's consider why community participation is
important. And then we'll look at some better ways of engaging
communities in making decisions that affect their quality of

Community participation is important for many reasons:

** So we are more likely to get the kind of neighborhood we

** To reduce conflict and legitimize government decisions
because everyone has had their "say" in the decisions.

** To create the "social glue" that turns a group of strangers
into a neighborhood, with all the other benefits that
neighborhood life brings (less crime, more pairs of eyes
watching out for the children, people helping each other solve
problems, etc.)

** To honor and fulfill the most basic political idea that led
to the Revolutionary War in 1776 -- self-governance.

** So we don't have to spend our lives defending our families,
time after time, against toxic assault.

** To gain the self-respect and self-assurance and sense of
well-being that comes with the power to control what's going on
in your life, especially the power to protect your family.

The environmental movement has not always held community
participation as a high priority. In earlier days, many
environmental groups were content with "dueling experts" where
their experts went head-to-head with their adversaries' experts
while the public stayed home and perhaps read about it in the

The environmental justice movement changed all that.

In October 1991, over a thousand people of color came together
at "The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership
Summit" in Washington, D.C. and drafted the Principles of
Environmental Justice.[1]

Two of the Principles are about community participation:
Principle 5 says, "Environmental justice affirms the
fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and
environmental self-determination of all peoples." In other
words we have the right to speak for ourselves and determine
our own destiny. And Principle 7 says, "Environmental justice
demands the right to participate as equal partners at every
level of decision-making including needs assessment, planning,
implementation, enforcement and evaluation." In other words we
should be equal partners in all decisions that affect our
community, starting early in the process.

The concept of community participation is also embedded in the
precautionary principle as defined by environmental justice
activists, academics, scientists, labor activists, and staff of
environmental organizations at a meeting held at the Wingspread
Center in Racine, Wisconsin in January 1998. At that meeting
participants drafted the Wingspread Statement on the
Precautionary Principle, which includes as its very last
sentences, "The process of applying the Precautionary Principle
must be open, informed and democratic and must include
potentially affected parties. It must also involve an
examination of the full range of alternatives, including no

In other words the precautionary principle says all affected
parties must be included in decisions and they must have the
opportunity to examine all reasonable alternatives including
the alternative of doing nothing.

How Can Communities Participate in Decisions?

Three recent reports have addressed public participation and
have suggested how it should work.

1) In May 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
released Public Involvement Policy of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency[3].

This policy creates a standard for judging EPA's success (or
failure) in involving the public in its regulatory programs
(for example, enforcing the Clean Water Act) and nonregulatory
programs (for example, providing information on pollution

2) In July 2003, the National Academy of Public Administration
(NAPA) released Addressing Community Concerns: How
Environmental Justice Relates to Land Use Planning and Zoning
[4]. This document offers advice to local, state, and federal
agencies about involving the public in decisions about land
use, including planning and zoning. NAPA is like the National
Academy of Sciences -- it was created by Congress to provide
advice on important public issues, but it is not funded by
Congress (it has to raise its own research funds).

3) In October 2003 the California Environmental Protection
Agency's (Cal/EPA) Advisory Committee on Environmental Justice
released its report, Recommendations of the California
Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) Advisory Committee on
Environmental Justice to the Cal/EPA Interagency Working Group
on Environmental Justice, Final Report[5]. The report
recommends ways that Cal/EPA can promote environmental justice
(and precaution) in all its programs, regulations, and

From these three documents we learn, first, that the agencies
empowered to protect our resources and our health are not doing
such a great job. Then we learn how they could do better.

** Today people want more input into the decisions that affect
their communities, and governments are not responding, say both
the Cal/EPA report [5, pg. 12], and the NAPA report [4].

** Environmental and land use planning and zoning agencies have
largely failed to solicit input from those most affected by the
decisions and often the result is incompatible land uses. For
example, residential neighborhoods have toxic, polluting
facilities in their midst. [5, pg. 11; 4, pg. 71]

** When community residents try to remedy bad planning and
zoning decisions or get a facility moved or cleaned up, they
find it hard to know who they need to talk to because often
several different agencies give permits and enforce regulations
within their town, and sometimes the agencies themselves cannot
say who is responsible for which decision. [5, pg. 11]

** In some cases, agencies lack processes for tracking or
addressing citizen concerns and have no staff to oversee the
environmental health of the community or track pollution
control efforts, which leads to serious environmental
injustices in low-income and people-of-color communities [4,
pg. 117].

** Impacted communities are then required to line up the dead
bodies (have to prove they have been harmed) before they can
get any help. [4, pg. 157]

** When agencies speak to communities they often use technical
language or speak in a legalistic, bureaucratic way, and treat
residents as if they couldn't possibly understand the problem.
[4, pg. 158]

And so governments and the corporate sector continue the cycle
of bad decision-making. But this can change.

EPA acknowledges that when citizens participate in decisions,
better decisions result. Often it is citizens who goad
governments into action, leading to better decisions.[3, pg. 1]

According to the U.S. Constitution, the main role of government
is to promote the "general welfare." Obviously this includes
protecting public health and the environment. [4, pg. 1, and
see Rachel's #775 on the public trust doctrine.]

The National Academy of Public Administration noted many times
in its report[4] that citizens have become the primary catalyst
for change. Communities initially identify problems, then
suggest more effective solutions, and finally hold the
government accountable to make things right. [4, pgs. 1, 11,
59, 89 and 117.]

So how would true community participation work? Each of these
reports makes numerous recommendations but here are a few

** Agencies need to plan and budget for public participation
for all programs. This includes, but is not limited to, hiring
staff to coordinate public involvement, providing financial
resources for extensive outreach and communications programs,
and training agency personnel to understand environmental
justice issues and work with the public. [3, pg. 7 and 5, pg.

It is also extremely important that agencies give money to
communities or community groups so that local residents can get
technical assistance and participate in meetings. This
"no-strings-attached" money would allow groups to hire their
own experts, make photocopies, and make it possible for
residents to attend meetings (money for transportation, child
care and even compensation for meeting time). [3, pgs. 9-10,
13; and 5, pg. 19]

Agencies need to widely distribute a publication explaining
citizens' rights and opportunities to participate in decisions.
[5, pg. 19]

** It is important for agencies to solicit community input
before any decisions are made and this is particularly
important in land use planning and zoning decisions. [5, pg.
18; and 4, pg. 22] Often bad planning and zoning decisions are
the first step in creating contaminated sites.

Agencies can identify interested and affected parties and
solicit community input by contacting existing community-based
groups, non-governmental organizations, and churches, as well
as advertising in local newspapers and on radio and cable
television. [3, pg. 8; and 5, pg. 19]

** All community outreach materials need to be clearly written
in easy-to-understand language. Outreach materials should be
published in a number of formats (for example fliers
distributed at community centers, churches, schools and other
community-gathering places; electronic postings on web sites;
and announcements in local newspapers), widely available and
published in languages besides English if the affected parties
do not read English easily. Agencies should consider
communicating in non-traditional ways, using pictures to convey
complex ideas. [5, pg. 18; and 3, pgs. 11-12] For example, a
drawing of a bathtub in the ground is a good way to explain how
landfills work and why they eventually always leak. (For
example, see http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/pdf/

** Hold meetings and workshops at times and locations that are
convenient for community members rather than times that are
convenient for agency staff. [5, pg. 18 and 4, pg. 22] This is
one of the greatest impediments to community participation
because most meetings are held between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday
through Friday, making it impossible for any working person to
attend. Also meetings are often held at Agency headquarters,
making it hard for local people because they have to travel
great distances to attend. Meetings should be held in the
community that will be affected by the decision.

** It is particularly important for local agencies to help
low-income and people-of-color communities participate in
planning and zoning decisions, ensuring that residents'
concerns are integrated into planning and zoning documents.
Local governments should also appoint people representing the
local community to land use planning and zoning boards. At
present, zoning boards tend to be dominated by middle-aged
white males. [4, pg. 22]

Cal/EPA reiterates these ideas and says that local governments
and communities should provide special tools for already
disproportionately impacted communities, including the
authority to deny permits. [6;7] As you can imagine, this idea
does not sit well with the polluters. Attached to the Cal/EPA
document is a dissenting opinion written by one of Cal/EPA's
Advisory Committee members, Cindy Tuck, General Counsel for
California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance (see
http://www.cceeb.org/ to learn about this organization). In her
dissent, Tuck says no one besides government should have the
authority to deny permits or make land use decisions. [5, pg.
41 and see note 7]

So we have a distance to go. More next time.


* Maria B. Pellerano is associate director of Environmental
Research Foundation.

[1] Charles Lee, Editor, Proceedings [of] The First National
People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (New York:
United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1992),
page xiii. The Principles of Environmental Justice are
available at: http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=153

[2] Nicholas Ashford and others Wingspread Statement on the
Precautionary Principle (Racine, Wisc.: Wingspread Center,
January 1998). The statement is available at

[3] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Public Involvement
Policy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [document
number EPA 233-B-03-002] (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, May 2003). Available at

[4] Philip Rutledge and others, Addressing Community Concerns:
How Environmental Justice Relates to Land Use Planning and
Zoning (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Public
Administration, July 2003). Available at
http://www.napawash.org/Pubs/EJ.pdf and
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=320 (this is a
long document and takes several minutes to retrieve).

[5] Cal/EPA Advisory Committee on Environmental Justice
released Recommendations of the California Environmental
Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) Advisory Committee on Environmental
Justice to the Cal/EPA Interagency Working Group on
Environmental Justice (Sacramento, Calif.: California
Environmental Protection Agency, October 2003). Available at
pdf and http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=317

[6] The Cal/EPA report says [5, pg. 22], "Develop tools for
communities and local governments to use for evaluating the
siting of facilities that significantly increase pollution in
disproportionately impacted communities, including the
authority for denial of permits, and increase the weight of
community involvement in those decisions;"

[7] Cindy Tuck writes in the Cal/EPA report [5, pgs. 41-42],
"Certainly it is appropriate for local governments to have
tools to use in making land use planning decisions. Communities
and other stakeholders need to be able to understand what those
tools are and how they work. However, no interest group,
including communities, should have the authority for the denial
of permits or to make the land use decision. Only government
should have the authority to approve or deny a permit or make
the land use decision. Communities and other stakeholders need
to be able to participate in a meaningful way in the public
process, but communities and other stakeholders do NOT make the
decisions." [Emphasis in the original.]