Having a voice in decision-making relevant to our environment is inherent to democracy. In order to become involved in environmental decision-making, however, citizens need to interact with governmental agencies and to understand their rights and responsibilities under environmental laws. Yet making informed decisions about human health and the environment involves often highly complex issues with data that is difficult to obtain and interpret. Thus, communities characterized by limited education and political disillusionment are effectively barred from participation. As a result, the populations most in need of awareness about environmental threats to their communities are the least likely to have a voice in decision-making that affects their lives.
This chapter further explores the underlying causes of these barriers to participation. Clips from a Green Environmental Coalition video illustrate the challenges confronting one community as they attempt to resolve an environmental dispute with an adjacent industrial facility. The voices of Jim and Carol Roseman and their neighbors provide first-hand testimony to the challenges confronting under-resourced groups as they try to make sense of bureaucracy and complex, unfamiliar subject matter. Their experiences help to explain why disadvantaged communities are often disconnected from the agencies created to help them.
I. Communities At Risk
II. The Agencies' Commitment to Environmental Education and Public Participation
- All the things people don't want in their backyards are in the backyards of minority populations and those who are disadvantaged. These communities are the least able to effect change and create solutions for the broad range of problems they experience.
- Chemical manufacturing plants, hazardous waste landfills, solid waste landfills, municipal incinerators, fossil-fueled power plants, highways and other developments with negative environmental consequences are more likely to be located in low-income and minority communities.
- Communities characterized by low income, minimal education, and cultural diversity are exposed to higher levels of environmental pollutants than the general population.
- The populations most at risk of disease and death from environmental hazards are the ones least informed about the potential health consequences of their exposure to pollutants. Their lack of education translates to a deficit of knowledge about environmental hazards as well as the likelihood of both neglected and exaggerated problems.
- Poverty further limits options and opportunities; low-income groups cannot always move away from undesirable places.
- These same communities tend to be politically
disenfranchised. They see little relationship between political participation
and any appreciable change in their condition. They are frustrated, angry and
apathetic toward a government that they believe has not met their needs.
III. The Beginnings of the Disconnect
- The environmental regulatory agencies are committed to helping citizens untangle air and water regulations; search for data relevant to specific environmental threats; and make sense of the technical jargon inherent to environmental issues.
- Both the US EPA and Ohio EPA have distributed excellent printed material and posted a series of informative Internet sites.
- The agencies recognize that scientific language may be incomprehensible to the layperson. As a result, the US EPA offers translations in publications such as "The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act."
- The Ohio EPA district offices facilitate file
searches, in which individuals search through files containing the history of
specific sites. The OEPA Public Information Center also provides personnel to
facilitate citizens' interaction with engineers and to ensure their
understanding of incomprehensible information.
- In theory, then, the public will be able to access relevant and understandable data in the agencies. Despite the agencies' efforts to disseminate information and promote citizen involvement in environmental decision-making, however, many disadvantaged communities remain disconnected from the process. Real-world considerations tend to undermine the agencies good intentions.
- Ohio's regulatory agencies have to fight for funding every two years. Public participation must somehow be included.
- They have enormous workloads; a single local air pollution control agency may
be responsible for monitoring thousands of "smokestacks."
- The workload must be divided among numerous different specialists.
As a result, no readily-identified point of contact exists in the agencies created to help citizens resolve environmental disputes.
- Differences between the agencies and disadvantaged community members often frustrate communication. Typically, the groups speak different languages, live in different places, and have different stakes in the proceedings. Miscommunication can lead to mistrust as well as misunderstanding.
- While an EPA file review provides access to
information, the concepts and jargon of toxicology, epidemiology, risk
assessment, and regulatory procedure are difficult to understand, even with
Air Pollution Impacts on the Body's Organs and Systems prepared by the National Association of Physicians for the Environment. http://www.napenet.org/about.html
"A Real Public Role" explores ways to enhance environmental awareness and to promote public participation. http://www.epa.gov/reinvent/notebook/eli1198.htm
"Closing the Gap," EPA Office of Environmental Justice. http://www.omhrc.gov/ctg/env-03.htm
Deblar and Associates, Inc. (1995) "An Outreach Strategy for Equity in environmental Issues." In the Ohio State of the Environment Report.
Department of Justice background to executive order relating to environmental justice issues.http://www.usdoj.gov/enrd/ejguide.html
Fact Sheet on Environmental Justice Institute of Medicine (1999).
Toward Environmental Justice: Research, Education, and Health Policy Needs. Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press.
"Serving a Diverse Society." USEPA pamphlet.
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