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Community Engagement

2009 December 1

How can EPA better engage and prepare local communities, especially economically disadvantaged communities, to meaningfully participate in government decisions on land cleanup, emergency response, and the management of hazardous materials and waste?

Local communities are directly affected by EPA actions related to environmental emergencies, cleanup of contaminated land and pollution, and management of hazardous materials and waste. Communities live with the decisions about these problems long after EPA finishes the work. EPA is starting a new Community Engagement Initiative to strengthen OSWER’s program efforts to consistently and effectively engage local communities and their stakeholders in decision making processes to produce outcomes that are protective and aligned with community goals.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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25 Responses leave one →
  1. Albert Iannacone of Knox County TN Health Department permalink
    December 3, 2009

    First off, thank you for creating this forum to allow a voice to local governments and local communities. We are definitely interested in knowing about these topics and participating in decision making.

    I learned about the OSWER discussion forum via a news release I received as an email, and this suggests one way you might “spread the word” about situations affecting specific communities. I received my email notice because I signed up due to an interest in a specific topic, and EPA might consider adding topical tags to all news releases *based on geography*, allowing the public to sign up to receive any information for the city, county, and/or state they provide when they register – these would be “topics of interest” in the same way that hazardous waste or water quality now are. I am not an IT person so I do not know how difficult this would be to implement, but an EPA-wide system that automatically routes information onto RSS feeds based on one’s location would be an incredibly useful tool.

    At a minimum, the public could be informed of this tool and offered an oportunity to sign up in the same ways that existing EPA RSS feeds are publicized, but additional non-standard ways of contacting the public should be considered as well. A link and small notice might be included in all EPA means of coomunicating with the public – hard-copy documents, RFPs, other EPA web pages, press releases, etc.

  2. Don Eggleston of State of California permalink
    December 3, 2009

    What does “economically disadvantaged” mean?

  3. Drew Burnett of U.S. EPA Environmental Education Division permalink
    December 3, 2009

    One way we (EPA) can better involve communities in decisions is to work with the local organization(s) that provide environmental education services to those communities. Generally speaking the goal of these organizations is to raise awareness and knowledge of local issues, improving critical thinking and/or probelms soving skills around those issues, and provide opportunities for people to get involved in addressing them. In other words from awareness to action. For more information on the organizations that are providing environmental education in communities across the country, visit the EE-Link website at EE-link is the largest source of EE information on the Internet and it was created and is maintained with EPA support through the Environmental Education Training Partnership (

  4. Bob Hennkens of Clearstream Technologies, LLC permalink
    December 3, 2009

    We are a small organization with interests in converting organic, fiber, and plastics into value-added bio fuels, bio energy, and bio products before the waste (resource to our group) reaches a landfill. It is nearly impossible to convince communities that we are not proposing incinerator technologies, and when we do convince a community that our programs are based on proven technologies and have a chance to go to work, we run into the rationale for non-action:
    ! > Don’t mess with our solid wastes. The tipping fees produce the revenue that we need to operate pick-up service.
    2> You will have to convince the Unions that you will support their interests if you take 75% of our solid wastes from the landfill operations.
    3> We will not fund any project on contaminated grounds like a landfill.
    4> Even through you might be providing a valuable service to reduce the perpetually occurring organic, fiber, and plastic wastes from our community, we don’t want your technology in our backyard.
    5> You cannot operate a private business on our Native American Indigenous Lands as we will not relinquish sovereignty.
    Perhaps some of these issues can be discussed for everyone’s information. Thank you for the opportunity.

  5. Seabury Lyon of Maine Mineralogy Expeditions permalink
    December 3, 2009

    I’m delighted to see the EPA launch this outreach -very encouraging. Our small business depends on the natural beauty and resources of Western Maine and the growth of tourism attracted to them. In fact, as legacy industry is in steep, irreversible decline the only aspect of our state economy that is growing currently is tourism.

    The unfortunate legacy our legacy industries left us includes terribly polluted rivers and streams with inedible fish, smokestack pollution and localized ground contamination. In order to gain popular support for a remediation plan to address these burdens it will be necessary to:
    1.) Coordinate and collaborate with local groups and agencies to produce a comprehensive, state-wide survey of environmental hazards;
    2.) In collaboration with the above groups, negotiate and prioritize the list in terms of short and long term economic impacts;
    3.) Produce a broad consensus and a Project Management approach to working down the priority list.

    With sufficient emphasis on maximizing public participation and buy-in, the usual inertia and resistance to these kinds of programs can be effectively minimized along with other delays and cost impactors.

    Sincere thanks for the opportunity!

  6. Adam Wright of Vermont Air National Guard permalink
    December 4, 2009

    One way to reach out to local communities is through the public schools. Many parents that may not have the time, resources or awareness level needed to get involved in environmental issues would at least look at a flyer that the students bring home (or email newsletter). Some of the older kids would likely be interested enough to get involved as well.

  7. Al Bannet of retired permalink
    December 4, 2009

    The human population has grown to such proportions that the Earth can no longer safely absorb the thousands of tons of sewage and garbage we produce every day. The oceans are already clogged with massive and growing amounts of plastic debris, the treated-sewage dead zones are growing along shorelines, mountains of landfill are growing on the outskirts of cities and towns around the World, and thousands of coal fired power plants and jet planes continue to pump out air pollution as more and more people demand electricity and transportation. Therefore, to avoid a toxic collapse in one bio-region after another, we must safely recycle 100% of everything we produce. This means a recycling station in every neighborhood, and a composting process for every local sewer system. What is needed is a public momentum toward that goal, and EPA could create it by announcing as a basic policy the concept of 100% safe recycling.

  8. James Potter of Depart. of Housing and Urban Development permalink
    December 4, 2009

    EPA could use the Sustainability Partnership with HUD and DOT to incorporate disaster/emergency response planning and hazardous materials management into the transportation and housing plans the Partnership is working to coordinate. This would provide a consistent, one-stop resource for strengthening communities. It is also a good place to work out the land use conflicts and NIMBYsm. This process will build trust with the residents when you have the luxury of time to talk about common goals and vision.

    Maybe you don’t have to work that hard. Disaster planning was mandated by the Diaster Mitigation Act. Talk to FEMA about folding your concerns into their requirements. It will enhance their plans since solid waste management is a tremendous challenge in post disaster areas, and it will allow EPA to be more cost-efficient by tapping an existing program. Then you can share marketing it to your target income ranges–another economy of scale.

  9. Jim Laughlin of NDOR permalink
    December 4, 2009

    1. Build working relationships with the local state/city goverments and ask for their support ( signs-news releases).
    2. Ask the city goverments for a list of neighborhood associations that could help to spread the work about different projcts that might/will be going on.
    3. Show the people what the advantages to them will be.

  10. Belinda Fowler of NDOR permalink
    December 4, 2009

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

    Economically disadvantaged local communities in our state are generally equivalent to: rural areas, small populations, are disperse, lack of large corporations or industry for jobs, have volunteer based fire departments and lack local service providers for land cleanup, emergency response, and hazardous materials disposal among others. Other than doing “the right thing” for the environment, these communities have little incentive. Furthermore, people in these communities are busy, work hard and need “simple straightforward communication and solutions”. The plethora of information available is confusing even for those of us in the profession, how do we make it less so for the public? The EE comment above mirrors this concern and provides a start to the solution. Local Grass-roots efforts have been positive and successful in these communities, but each program (and community) seem to be its own separate entity. Unity across programs and communities to engage, collaborate, and discuss common issues over a large geographic area is a good place to start. Electronic communication like this forum is perhaps that start, but the one-on-one, face-to-face benefits are lost. Once common stakeholders are identified: define needs (common and uncommon), determine incentives or support requirements to meet those needs, then design and implement a duplicatable model to get the desired outcomes.

  11. Mickey Dolan of permalink
    December 4, 2009

    I think EPA-HQ has an underutilized program that can help vulnerable communities (1) understand the technical aspects of contamination and waste and (2) provide the vulnerable community with a resource that they can trust that is not part of federal or state government. The program I’m talking about is the “Technical Assistance to Brownfields” (TAB) Program. I do believe that the TAB Contractor is perfectly positioned to expand its role and serve as that independent third party technical advisor that vulnerable communities so desperately need. The TAB Contractor can also be a neutral force that (1) raises the concerns that we regulators need to hear (that the vulnerable community alone may not know to raise) and (2) gives the vulnerable community that “tough love” message that can only come from a trusted third party, when appropriate. Here are my specific suggestions:

    1. ADVERTISE TAB better, particularly within the Environmental Justice circles. The few conversations that I have about TAB are with Economic Development Organizations and city government types. My friends in the EJ Community know little if anything about TAB.
    2. Emphasize the third party nature of TAB (similar to the Air Program’s “Small Business Ombudsman” that is “non-regulatory” in nature), so communities can feel that they have an impartial advocate.
    3. Encourage TAB grant recipients to have at least 1 workshop per year in each state.
    4. Give TAB recipients the ability/authority/expectation to collect samples (i.e., We can point to lots of analytical data either collected by State Agency or by a PRP for a particular site, but if they come back “ND”, often the community is not satisfied – this goes back to the “building trust” discussion that we all should continually work on).
    5. Encourage TAB grant recipients to be at community meetings for Superfund, brownfield, and landfill permits, particularly those with tremendous public outcry (which probably means better coordination between Regional EJ program and TAB grant recipient).
    6. Expect TAB grant recipients to engage with State regulators on a periodic basis (i.e., I’d love to share experiences/challenges).
    7. Expect TAB grant recipient to participate in EJ meetings/conferences/etc. sponsored by EPA.

  12. Sharon Lin of EPA Region 9 Superfund RPM permalink
    December 4, 2009

    My project had the honor of receiving this year’s EPA national environmental justice achievement award. I think a successful community engagement needs to incorporate principles of interest-based strategic planning, environmental justice, community-based social marketing and achieving measurable environmental results. For my project, we clearly aligned EPA’s mission with the goals of the communities, environmental groups and local and state agencies. We also teamed up community based organizations with local environmental groups and local and state agencies through this project. I think a true engagement has to be multi-faceted and needs to take place at the local level. EPA can’t do it all. We can provide leadership and leverage our resources to build and support a multi-faceted local partnership that carries out a joint mission. To start, EPA project managers and management need to receive adequate training on subjects such as strategic planning, environmental justice, and community-based social marketing. Please contact me if you need more ideas/input.

  13. Mathy Stanislaus of USEPA Assistant Administrator permalink
    December 7, 2009

    That’s a great suggestion – I’ll be sure that our press office takes a look at this comment. You can already sign up for RSS feeds for news by EPA Region here: I don’t know if it’s feasible to add feeds for news by state or by metropolitan area, but it’s worth looking in to.

  14. Mathy Stanislaus of USEPA Assistant Administrator permalink
    December 7, 2009

    I strongly believe that EPA should empower local organizations to take the lead in rebuilding their neighborhoods. I am actively examining how the EPA programs that I am responsible for can better include local community participation and leadership in cleanup and redevelopment. I am interested in specific ideas regarding how OSWER programs can best do that.

  15. Guy M. Zaczek of Niagara County Community College permalink
    December 7, 2009

    The City of Niagara Falls brought up the issue of gas spills. There seems to be a lot of double talk from the EPA and NY DEC as to how the spills should be handled. “Should they flush” or is there absorbent?? Leaving it is NOT acceptable.

    Devald Safety company seminar had a green product that absorbs – hydrocarbon – then can be burned. The secretary will email information when she receives it. (Emailed 10/15)

    National Vacuum was also mentioned. Kitty litter solidifies it. It was also mentioned that it is the responsibility of the tow company to clean the spill up, but also stated that the tow company usually sweeps it up and throws it in the trunk. Is this type of spill a reportable spill?? The Law also states that one cannot transport more than 1 five gallon container. Many persons do that when they visit the reservation gas stations.

    Much discussion – no definite answers.

    So here is your test EPA. How would you answer these down in the trenches questions that happen a few times every day.

  16. of Ohkay Owingeh permalink
    December 8, 2009

    Provide the necessary first responders with the proper equipment.
    In these troubled economic times it is even harder for Tribes and rural American that do not have sufficient capacity/resources makes it even more paramount that ARRA funds sould have been used be to disasdvantaged tribal nations as well as rural communities that are severly disadvantaged by lacking the population numbers nor the capacity to submit proposals that have any likelyhood of receiving the funding as more populous areas.
    This does not mean that they lack to fortitude to accomplish the goal of heath and safety only that they lack the resources (contnued funding) and in rural US most are vollenteers.
    Belnda Fowler expressed basicaly the same thought however there is more of a Gov-to Gov policy that seems to be more guidance than providing training to Upper Management and staff on what “fidiciary responsibility” really means. As well as Evironmental Justice.
    Soley my thoughts not tribally appoved. Only as a citizen.

  17. Jeff Maurer of USEPA Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response permalink*
    December 9, 2009

    While I don’t have specific knowledge about the incident to which you’re referring, I can give you EPA’s general view of acceptable ways to clean up a gas spill. All spills must be contained, collected, and disposed of according to state and local regulations. If the spill reaches a storm drain, or if the fire department is involved and determines there is a fire hazard, then flushing could be an acceptable method to reduce fire hazard. However, if there is a gas spill at a gas station, kitty litter is often used as an absorbent; this is considered an acceptable way to clean up the spill.

    That said, there are a number of techniques that are used to control oil spills and minimize their impact on human health and the environment. Which technique is used depends on the nature of the spill. Our response techniques can be found here:

    To answer your question about whether this type of spill is reportable, without knowing all the details of the incident, I would say yes. Typically, to report a spill you should call the National Response Center (1-800-424-8802), but if there is the risk of an explosion due to the spill, you should call 911.

  18. Heather Case of USEPA Office of Environmental Justice permalink
    December 11, 2009

    “Economically disadvantaged” is a general term used to describe a community or a population who does not have the income/assets for a secure and adequate livelihood. Being “economically disadvantaged” may also pre-dispose people to greater impacts from pollution (e.g., because they can’t afford health care) or may prevent their meaningful participation in governmental decision-making processes (e.g., because they can’t afford transportation to attend a public meeting). Administrator Jackson set an expectation early in her tenure that EPA, “…take special pains to connect with those who have been historically under-represented in decision making…” Extra effort should be invested to reach people who may not have the economic means, or who are experiencing other circumstances, that may prevent their participation in decisions that could impact their health or environment.

  19. Daniel Poull of Sustainability Advisory Board, Lawrence, KS permalink
    December 14, 2009

    Thank you for providing this forum.
    I would suggest that the EPA use all of the incentives and penalties at their disposal to help communities:
    1. Decrease waste. Their should be a nationwide campaign to make greater use of recyclable materials. There should be actual standards as to what actually can be disposed in a landfill. There should be a campaign to lessen packaging on retail goods sold in the U.S.
    2. Increase local economies. Lessen the impact of pollution and carbon that is created by consumer goods and food that are shipped nationally and internationally that could otherwise be created locally.
    3. Greater incentives for local and sustainable power production. Every area of the country has a type of energy they can produce, whether it is solar, wind, bio-mass, or other types. We should fund at least the pilot projects for these kinds of local power systems.
    4. Stricter controls on coal-fire power plants. After the coal ash accident in Tennessee, we know there are numerous ways in which coal-fired power plants put people at risk. Tighten standards on all aspects of detrimental wastes and carbon produced from the burning of coal.

  20. RafaelPG of R5, EPA permalink
    December 29, 2009

    Consideration should be given to a methodological approach involving procedural justice to public involvement in natural resource decision process. Public involvement literature reveals a variety of reasons for involving public, in the decision process. However, little attention is given to the effects of procedures on the very communities we are trying to engage with … Until we address the procedural activities at the regional level … we may be lost at sea for a while, if not far longer than we should be if we do not set procedures to engage, or reorganize the current applications of engaging the community with the current philosophy.

  21. Yvonne of Citizen permalink
    January 11, 2010

    I think folks should be cautious to equate “economically disadvantaged” with “historically under-represented.” Although these concepts may overlap, they are not synonyms.

    The question Don Eggleston asked holds merit and is still unanswered. What is EPA’s policy is using this (now overused) term: economically disadvantaged? This term started popping up a few years ago from EPA offices, but it’s not clear why. Heather can you, or someone from the Office of Environmental Justice, answer that question more specifically?

    And while we are at it, what happend to the term Environmental Justice?

  22. elizabeth of western washington university permalink
    February 2, 2010

    I agree that we should recycle 100% of everything that we produce, but unfortunately it is a very costly venture-economically speaking. Not all products are recyclable and even if they are it costs a lot of money in transportation and reproduction of that material. In order for recycling to be most beneficial, 100% of a product must be recycled, but that is not the case since we are recycling products after we consume them. All in all, recycling is something that everyone needs to take a part in so that it can be most beneficial and recycling systems need to be developed on a localized scale- not state wide or nation wide- becuase every community functions differently and will benefit from different systems of recycling.

  23. Diane of permalink
    December 10, 2010

    Mr. Maurer:

    You said in your comments, “If the spill reaches a storm drain, or if the fire department is involved and determines there is a fire hazard, then flushing could be an acceptable method to reduce fire hazard.” Under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Program of the Clean Water Act, municipalities are instructed that they are to prevent oil and gas spills from entering stormdrains and flowing from there into the environment. Your statement seems to conflict with Clean Water Act requirements, which is why cities around the country are required to remove spilled oil from stormdrains with specialized vacuum trucks. Please clairify your comments. Thank you.

  24. Sandra Warnken of rural resident permalink
    February 9, 2011

    We live about 2.5 miles from the local landfill. Though we are in a rural agricultural area the population is made larger by vehicles moving through on the highway, farmers/farmworkers working in the fields.

    The site is, I supposed, financially stressed by the state of California mandate to reduce garbage to the land fill by 50%. The site took on a trial composting project back in the early 2000s. Somewhere along the way they started hauling food waste in for the project. We started smelling it by 2003. Being good neighbors we didnt complain until we discovered the site wanted to expand importation of food waste. In 2005 they received a permit to expand the tonnage of food waste coming in.

    Even though CEQA allows for public comment, the county only required comment from anyone living a short distance from the site, even though there were complaints from a resident half a mile from the the east and slightly north. My husband and I showed up the night the planning commission voted to approve the permit. We heard the project was grandfathered in even though the ROG and VOCs were above limits. The consultant who was reporting the results on tests testified there was no smell coming of the compost. I suppose that is true when it was in a bag. However the site manager later admitted they knew they had an odor problem, but everybody was willing to over look it. The project was permitted due to a host of ‘overriding considerations’.

    We have been attending stakeholder meetings for years contesting the smell issue. Slowly people are joining the group as they figure out there is a problem and want to do something about it.

    The contention from state and local officials is that this smell is a nuisance and only is worth taking notice if the odor can be tied to illness. And they also like to pretend there is no odor. The problem boils down to a few rural residents taking a stand against a large employer in a cash strapped county.

    Secondly, I have taken issue with a state beaurocrate over requiring inappropriate tests to determine the safety of the “organic” soil amendment. The compost facility is supposed to test for e coli and salmonell and heavy metals. The piles only need to go to 130 degrees. As a result of following these guidelines, the facility manager assures us their product is safe because it is tested. It is deemed “organic”.

    The odd thing is this there is no interest in plant pathogens for a product that is sold as a soil amendment. There are studies showing that several plant pathogens survive composts taken to 160+ degrees F. In effect if present they are concentrated rather than destroyed. No testing is done to determine if pathogens like tobacco mosaic virus, verticillium and fusarium wilt are done to protect the tomato industry.

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