The public involvement challenge in comparative risk

Wlkins, James S.
Maich Gardner
Department of Environmental Studies
Active public involvement in the Comparative Risk process is critical to the short and long-term policy goals set forth by the U.S. EPA, its client states, cities and Native American tribes. In completed projects the role of the public has been acknowledged, then consistently overlooked and discounted. The public role has been that of an audience whose function is to observe and applaud the process and results. The existence of public buy-in is often assumed even when evidence suggests otherwise because it is important to the process. Public involvement (to date) is symbolic - a chimera. In reality, the general public has not been successfully engaged in the Comparative Risk process. This paper provides readers a historical perspective on the public involvement component of Comparative Risk followed by a discussion of political and social pressures that dictate the actual extent of public involvement in such projects. Interviews with project participants from three first generation projects (Vermont, Washington, and Louisiana) and two second generation projects (California and Maine) are used to identify and qualify structural elements of the various projects that (1) seek to engage the general public, and (2) prevent the integration of the general public. The final chapter offers practical and original suggestions for the development of a new mechanism designed to engage the general public as a project partner. Significant and integrated public involvement is required if the public is expected to openly validate the process and results. Evidence supports that public validation is lacking, and thereby contributing to a failure to apply the comprehensive project results to the creation of progressive environmental policy at the state level. Even the public validation of the process is little more than an enhanced passive role. Empowering the public as a project partner guarantees their involvement and will contribute to the quality of the project and facilitate integration of project findings and environmental risk management strategies. There are structural considerations of the traditional Comparative Risk model that are closely aligned with the public involvement limitations which repeatedly contribute to project shortcomings. Indications are numerous throughout the projects that a lack of commitment to the significance of public involvement exists. The Public Advisory Committee (or functional equivalent) provides a unique perspective on the nature of public involvement in the Comparative Risk process. The PAC serves as an information gatekeeper between the project and the public. The selection process, organizational structure and mission purpose (statement or implied) of the Public Advisory Committee contributes to the lack of public integration in most projects. Closed or restrictive selection processes, extensive - and uncompensated - time requirements and conflicting responsibilities and authority combine to prevent many interested individuals from participating in the projects. First generation projects such as Colorado, Louisiana, and Washington defined public involvement in terms of constituencies represented on the Public Advisory Committee. Vermont, another first generation project, successfully filled the PAC with environmental professionals, consulting scientists and business leaders from public and private entities across the state. Contemporary projects such as California and Maine reflect current thinking and values and have attempted to augment traditional constituency representation with the integration of a higher degree of public outreach and involvement. Current project proposals have generally identified the lack of public involvement as a shortcoming. Unfortunately, some projects fall short of integrating comprehensive public involvement and the projects suffer from its absence. A new definition of involved public is required for the Comparative Risk process, one that builds on the first generation or projects but allows for inclusion of new ideas and is sensitive to the importance of direct public involvement. Project planners and managers may benefit from re-conceptualizing the public involvement element of their projects. The public offers more than a passive validation of the process and subsequent results. To realize the full measure of their potential contribution, project participants must be committed to the need for public involvement.

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