Community Adjourned: Assessing Community Advisory Panels

Smokestack (Wikimedia)

An industrial chimney. Communities often oppose proposed chemical facilities in their area.

Community advisory panels, or CAPs, are a central feature of the U.S. chemical industry’s public outreach efforts. CAPs have fostered dialogue between chemical facilities and neighboring communities nationwide. However, they are also frequently criticized as merely public-relations vehicles for the chemical industry. Gwen Ottinger reviews the contexts in which CAPs operate and proposes frameworks for assessing their success.

Following major accidents at a number of chemical facilities in the 1980s that severely undermined public confidence in the global chemical industry, the industry’s trade associations established the Responsible Care initiative. Responsible Care aims to rebuild public confidence in the industry by improving environmental performance and creating a forum for open communication with stakeholders. In the United States community advisory panels have emerged as the dominant form of Responsible Care—motivating a new interest in public outreach. During regularly scheduled meetings CAPs bring together representatives from chemical facilities with residents of the communities in which those facilities are located. While CAPs have been lauded for fostering community-industry dialogue, they have also been criticized by those who suspect them of being little more than public-relations vehicles for the industry.
As implemented by the American Chemistry Council (ACC, formerly the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association) in the United States, Responsible Care asks chemical facilities to improve health, safety, and environmental performance beyond what is required by law and to communicate openly with neighbors and other members of the public about the facilities’ performance. Adherence to the detailed guidelines of Responsible Care is an obligation of membership in the ACC. All ACC member companies are thus expected to participate in public dialogues. Although companies need not necessarily establish CAPs to fulfill this requirement, such panels are a prevalent form of public dialogue in the industry. In 2004 the ACC reported that member companies had established roughly 300 CAPs.

Political and Regulatory Contexts

The crisis of public confidence in the chemical industry was largely catalyzed by the 1984 Bhopal, India, tragedy when a 40-ton methyl isocyanate release from a Union Carbide subsidiary killed thousands of Indian villagers. The event led to questions about the safety of chemical plant operations worldwide and in the United States triggered community right-to-know legislation and new forms of emergency planning.

Negative public perceptions of the U.S. chemical industry have also been fueled by the growing anti-toxics and environmental justice movements, which emerged in the early 1980s. They allege that even the normal operations of industrial facilities threaten the environment and the health of nearby communities. Anti-toxics and environmental justice activists have been effective in introducing concerns about everyday health hazards into the public discourse about the chemical industry, dubbing the Mississippi River Industrial Corridor, with its high concentration of chemical and petrochemical facilities, “Cancer Alley.”