Across the United States, there are some 1,300 Superfund sites with legacy hazard-waste pollution severe enough to require strong federal intervention and likely tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to investigate, analyze, remediate, and monitor. Many of these sites have local stakeholder groups that provide input to the federal agency responsible for overseeing cleanup and are kept informed about efforts to address contamination. Whether called community advisory groups (CAGs), restoration advisory boards (RABs), or another name, the purpose of these entities is to bring together organizations, agencies, and community members to discuss technical issues, pose questions, and provide input regarding the cleanup.
CBI has facilitated such groups in several states, over many years, across many federal administrations. The sites we have worked on include: military bases in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, an industrial and municipal waste site in Colorado, and major PCB river site cleanups in Massachusetts and New York. One of the greatest challenges we face in these highly legalistic, technical, and procedurally onerous Superfund processes is determining what truly meaningful role citizens and stakeholders can play.
CAGs are unique among other stakeholder groups convened for collaborative purposes because:
CAGs at their best serve numerous purposes. They provide a singular forum for an entire community to hear information from those overseeing the cleanup. With regular participation, CAG members can develop a deep knowledge of the site and its technicalities, as well as the capacity to engage the federal agency and PRPs on highly technical issues. In addition to building relationships with agencies, CAG members can strengthen and build new alliances with other residents and organizations. CAGs can be the central focus of media attention for a given site and can serve as a forum where disagreement, skepticism, and criticism can be voiced and garner attention. Importantly, CAGs can also ensure group members are highly informed about and engaged with the government’s oversight of environmental cleanup in their communities.
In some cases, CAGs are unable to achieve these purposes. Because of frustration around lack of power and influence, extended cleanup timelines, misunderstandings due to issue complexity and an atmosphere of low trust, and the significant time commitment involved, CAGs under stress can exacerbate conflict and interfere with cleanup efforts. They can consume limited agency staff time, erode relationships, and polarize members of the same communities.
Given the potential for meaningful committee work but also real risks of frustration or even failure, what advice does CBI have to ensure stakeholder groups on Superfund sites can be successful?
First, expectations are everything. We have found that is it important to align and consistently realign expectations among CAG members, agencies, and PRPs about what the CAG can and cannot do. While EPA or PRPs rarely share decision-making power with these groups, they can be influenced by community input. CAGs are not oversight groups, boards of directors, or decision-making bodies. However, CAGs provide a valuable forum for citizens and organizations to arm themselves with knowledge they can use to ask hard questions and provide some degree of accountability for agencies and PRPs. They can provide a platform to engage the media as a serious influencer, and, outside of formal CAG meetings, can organize with sister citizens and organizations to expand and exert political influence.
Second, agencies should take the CAG’s ability to learn, grasp, and understand complex information seriously and engage with the community in technical breadth and detail. Citizens can handle it. The key is to build agendas that track the technical program, ensure effective presentations of data and analysis, and allow sufficient time for good questions and building understanding. Well-informed, committed CAG members can ask valuable and surprising questions that can cause even the most jaded project managers and engineers to look at a problem or challenge in a new light. CAGs shouldn’t be seen primarily a place for consensus or agreement – on technical, expensive, complex sites with lots of uncertainty, that’s often not likely – but rather as places for robust, informed discussions of issues and ideas that can lead to better outcomes due to a thorough “kicking of the tires.”
Third, integrating the technical interagency and PRP process with the CAG and public involvement is essential for success. Too often, CAGs and public involvement are seen as “add-ons” to the technical and legal process. This is a mistake. CAGs cannot offer effective, clear, and specific advice unless they are given detailed and accurate data, and the agencies are honest and transparent about the pros, cons, and trade-offs of sampling, monitoring, and remediation. Even when citizen members disagree with the agencies, they almost always appreciate and prefer accurate, transparent information and a well-functioning cross-agency team over dysfunction, finger pointing, and inaction.
Fourth, CAGs need to be refreshed from time to time. Superfund cleanup is usually a decades-long process. For instance, the upper Hudson River was declared a Superfund site in 1984. A Record of Decision to dredge the river was signed in 2002. The first official CAG was formed in 2003. Dredging began in 2009, and most if not all dredging was completed by 2016. Over the length of the Superfund process, community demographics can change, members may become frustrated, and groups can get worn down by the long, tedious process. We have found that periodically – every three to five years – it is useful to do a CAG process review and refresh. How can new members be brought in? Do new ground rules need to be introduced or old ones better reinforced? How can agendas and presentations be improved? As just one example, not long ago the Hudson River PCB Cleanup CAG brought high school students into the group because it wanted to hear from those who will bear the future consequences of choices made today.
Fifth, CAGs are necessary but not sufficient. Because EPA, the PRP(s), or to some degree both, convene and support these groups, and because various federal procedural rules limit their functions, CAGs in and of themselves are not going to be a primary vehicle for advocacy and “politicking.” Such advocacy is at times absolutely needed to garner more resources, speed up action, or revisit decisions in light of new information. CAGs can be important venues for information sharing and relationship building. CAG members can use the knowledge they have gained to conduct advocacy outside of the CAG structure. Both forms of community engagement can build the effectiveness and responsiveness of a site.
CAGs can present a tricky context for developing a strong stakeholder process. With no decision-making or formal advisory authority, the degree to which members’ input is considered often relies on the quality of the relationships that are developed through the CAG. At the same time, given the local significance and emotional intensity of the issues, not to mention the slow pace and other challenges of Superfund projects, CAGs contend with varying degrees of frustration and conflict, further taxing those relationships. Still, our experience is that clear expectations, transparency, good process, strong working relationships, and periodic reassessment can go a long way towards building meaningful and worthwhile CAGs that can make a positive difference in Superfund projects.