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Sound environmental advice

Sound environmental advice

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    Environmental advisory boards often meet on a monthly basis to discuss short- and long-term issues. The Oak Ridge, Tenn., EQAB, shown here during a meeting, works through many public works issues. Photo: Paul Parson

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    Something as seemingly simple as a nature trails may be tackled by an environmental advisory committee. This trail in Oak Ridge, Tenn., leads to a reconfigured beaver dam and pond. A highlight of the nature trail is a view of the outfall from the city's wastewater treatment plant. Photo: K.D. Lawson/Black Star

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    The Clemson Beaver Pond Leveler was constructed using polyvinyl chloride pipe, wire, and welded fence fabric. Alan Neal and Allan Morrow with the U.S. Department of Agriculture worked with city crews to assemble the materials needed for the leveler and assisted with the installation of the finished product. Photo: Larry Bailey

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    The Oak Ridge, Tenn., public works department's work on a local beaver dam was funded using routine park maintenance funds. Challenges included saving the beaver habitat in an environmentally friendly manner while reducing the damage to nearby properties, dealing with traffic safety concerns, and alleviating mosquito problems caused by the impoundment of water behind the dam. Photo: Larry Bailey

Commitment to Quality

While pro-development interests may oppose the formation of EQABs, another obstacle resides in the often “chilly relationship” between environmental activists and environmental science professionals. Professionals sometimes think that citizen advocates are simply interfering in the business of conscientious, trained specialists engaged in highly technical work. Meanwhile, citizens may think professionals have failed in some way to carry out their responsibility to protect the public interest, health, or safety. But the public and environmental professionals need one another.

Another challenge to environmental quality is the changing nature of federalism in the United States. The days of generous federal grants for expensive wastewater collection or treatment facilities have passed, replaced by state revolving loans. Such loans may be available at very reasonable interest rates, but the local utility must repay them, usually by increasing rates. In communities where environmental quality-assurance infrastructure is weak or nonexistent, these increases will be high. Accompanying higher utility rates will be increased costs and user fees to finance water and wastewater improvements, and other infrastructure needs.

Citizens who may not have asked many questions when rates were low may become more interested and active in the coming era of cost and fee increases. Communities will require mechanisms to educate and inform citizens about the purpose of proposed rate increases and how improvements will result in either enhanced or maintained community health and environmental standards. Hence, the EQAB may serve an indispensable educational and public relations role in the future.

Concern Among Citizens

With rising awareness of the sources and consequences of water, air, and soil pollution, citizens of all races and socioeconomic circumstances are not shrinking from confrontation. Over the past decade, community groups have spearheaded environmental protest, targeting industrial plants and other perceived sources of pollution.

These groups not only demonstrate levels of citizen concern, but also illustrate the need for two-way communication. We cannot spend all our public resources on environmental protection. Even as activism grows, duly elected and chartered policymaking bodies require input from credible risk and health professionals to balance emotional protest with accepted science. The formation of citizen activist groups that seek to deal with issues they feel are not receiving appropriate attention is to be expected. But, if local governments were to sponsor active and effective environmental agendas, residents would be less inclined to undertake the work of environmental protection on their own, which sometimes happens even though participants do not have good information.

A well-intentioned local environmental group might succeed merely in alarming people, whereas a recognized, voluntary educational or advisory body could serve as a stable, ongoing advocate and sounding board for townspeople. Informal environmental associations and organizations have an important role to play—a role that could be rendered far more effective when exercised in the context of a rational local environmental agenda.

Considering the high cost industry and taxpayers pay for Superfund cleanup—well into the billions of dollars—it is evident that comprehensive site remediation will become financially impossible if we fail to stem the introduction of new toxics into the environment. This means that preventing pollution is not just about aesthetics, but about financial feasibility and the responsible use of citizen tax dollars. While local advisory boards can be employed in broadly based efforts to address existing problems, their long-term utility may be in the prevention of environmental damage.

Responsiveness to Concerns

Most local officials are “back-door” environmentalists, making important decisions on a somewhat piecemeal basis, failing to take a comprehensive look at the role local government has in environmental protection. Instead of merely reacting to environmental crises or problems, local governments should consider getting out front on environmental issues. Involving citizens in environmental decisions is the key to securing acceptance of viable solutions and their costs. If local officials see protecting the safety and health of citizens as a priority, then developing a comprehensive approach to the complex challenges facing their communities is a major step toward fulfilling that responsibility.

Observing communities with citizen EQABs (sometimes known by other names like natural resources committee or local oversight committee) reveals that they represent a useful tool. Local governments from coast to coast, both small and large, have adopted environmental advisory boards. Analysis of the ordinances adopted by several of these communities reveals some interesting patterns.

It is not uncommon for these boards or the communities they represent to be initiated in reaction to a single local environmental problem. Examples include oil spills, long-term and ongoing industrial pollution, abandoned hazardous wastes, solid waste disposal crises, resource recovery, groundwater pollution, and air quality. Some boards are launched primarily to encourage conservation, environmental planning, and interaction among citizens and industries with local government in a proactive, mutually respectful fashion.

Although many EQAB simply function to educate citizens and offer advice to local governments, a few have coordinated more intensive and detailed efforts using funds from both private and government sources. The city of Oak Ridge, Tenn., established an EQAB by ordinance in the early 1970s. The committee continues to operate today. Although this city has been a “company town,” where a few major industrial employers may have greater-than-average influence on local policy, its advisory board has made an environmental contribution not otherwise possible. In the Oak Ridge example, the committee continues to comment on public works issues, general city environmental issues, and federal agency National Environmental Policy Act documents, as well as work with Superfund clean-up reviews, comment letters, and other high-profile roles. The committee interfaces with the city council as needed.